Hope Is Always Ahead, Never Behind: Reflections at 90 by William John Fitzgerald

Looking back almost a century, certain memories seem seismic and earthshaking. And they may provide aftershocks that linger well into the foreseeable future. Everyone who lives into their 90s, as I have, could provide a “memories list.” Looking back serves nostalgia, but when we look ahead, we search for signals of hope.

When I was three, the transition from horses to gasoline engines was underway. But I still remember the red Omar Bread wagon still coming to our house pulled by a horse. And when our neighbors graded the route for a new driveway, no tractor appeared. Instead, a team of giant Belgian draft horses plowed and graded the pathway.

I remember visiting a ranch outside of Sterling, Colorado, where my father had been a ranch hand after World War I, “the war to end all wars.” Cowboys were breaking horses in the corral, and that night bunking in the ranch house we had no electricity, only flickering gas lamps. And that was in the 1940s!

I remember the era of passenger trains: big black behemoths belching sparks and steam roaring through the night, tended by perspiring foremen who stoked those mighty engines with coal.  And the eerie sounds of the steam-engine train whistles echoing through the night. Near the end of that era came the diesel streamliners, each with a name and a personality. They each possessed their own ambiance and carried colorful names like the Burlington Zephier, the Milwaukee Hiawatha, or the Rock Island Line’s Rocky Mountain Rocket.

The Arc of History

From my early childhood to the present, I have seen a vast scope of American history. I would glean several events which I believe have sent aftershocks into our children’s future. Some are positive—the feminist and civil rights movements, for example—while others, such as the clergy abuse crisis, rampant school shootings, and the January 6 insurrection, are not. Potential dangers lurk alongside hope for better days ahead.

The rise of access to “the pill” and other contraceptives had consequences regarding fertility rates, but one undeniable result was that more women were free to pursue careers or enter the job market than ever before. And more women have assumed positions of leadership, from astronauts to zookeepers—except in the Catholic Church. No woman is allowed to enter an all-male, ordained, clerical conclave because there are no female cardinals. But that could, in the future, be the first crack in the stained-glass ceiling. If men who are not ordained clerics are eligible to be cardinals, why not women?

Here in 2022, Sister Marie Kolbe Zamora works as a Vatican official for the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. She admits that the Vatican is still run by clerics, yet half of her office is staffed by women. The glass ceiling is broken or cracking worldwide, but remains intact in the church. A trend towards women’s inclusion at higher levels of authority seems to be gaining ground, even in a church known for its glacial change of pace.

Illuminating Information

For better or for worse all the world’s libraries and commentaries are now at our disposal. This is a world of illuminating information where the Holy Spirit endures. But it can also be a world where Satan, “the father of lies,” lurks. And all this in a tiny microchip!

I recently attended a dinner party that included a young engaged couple. The bridegroom stated, “I fully expect to travel to Mars in my lifetime.” The young couple were a minority among a table of elders. The refrain “Ain’t it awful?” dominated much of the repartee. But if it is awful, we, the older generation, have made it so.

I also recently interviewed two young college graduates seeking acceptance into medical school. One was from Yale and the other Notre Dame. If these two are representative of the future, then they inspire hope. In my exhaustive and probing interviews with them, terms like honor, social justice, pay it forward, leadership, gratitude, and service were voiced. Unsurprisingly, both were accepted into medical school.

As we delve into the inner space of our bodies with modern technology, we discover new mysteries, just as when we look into outer space, we see farther and deeper than ever before. The James Webb Space Telescope currently exploring the universe is discovering that we are only a speck in an immeasurable cosmos. In my 90th year, new discoveries are accelerating at a phenomenal rate.

A Multiracial Democracy

My friend and classmate Father Jerry Burbach was clubbed to the ground by a state trooper as he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Since Selma interracial justice has progressed, but as the poet proclaims, “We have miles to go before we sleep.” The march goes on.

Demographics point towards majority-minority population in the U.S. by the middle of the 21st century. But there is a reaction to such demographic shifts. Violence is stoked by hate-filled diatribes on the internet, and seismic events could be on the rise from the militant Right.

We saw a harbinger of such events with the violent insurrection on January 6. No event since the British burned the Capitol in 1814 has been so momentous for our democracy. Prophets like Liz Cheney, rejected by her own party, realize the January 6 assault was more than an attack on a building, but rather an attempt to overturn a legitimate election and an assault on the democratic process itself.

History teaches that where a void exists, frightened people gravitate to “strong leaders” and in the direction of fascism. Often, these strong leaders scapegoat “the others.” For Hitler it was the Jews. For too many in the U.S., it is the despised “illegals” and people of color. It falls upon a lonely and brave prophet like Cheney and a minority in Congress to shine a torch and shed light on demagoguery and the Big Lie.

Another lady stands torch in hand in New York Harbor. She has given hope to millions of immigrants. Will her torch go out, or will it shine more brightly for democracy? It will go out if we wallow in lassitude and fail to vote. Only can an electorate that turns out to vote and represents all the people provide hope for an enduring democracy.

School Shootings

The ancient Hebrews had their Golden Calf, which they worshiped until Moses excoriated their idolatry. We have our own Golden Calf: automatic assault weapons worshipped by the National Rifle Association. These war weapons have torn up and riddled the bodies of children so badly that grieving parents are able to identify their mangled corpses only by matching DNA.

Where is Moses today to excoriate the seemingly all-powerful gun lobby? At least Pope Francis has spoken, as well as Cardinal Blaise Cupich, who wrote: “As I reflect on this latest American massacre, I keep returning to the questions: Who are we as a nation if we do not act to protect our children? What do we love more: our instruments of death or our future?”

Clergy Sexual Abuse

This disaster has cast long shadows over the future of the Catholic Church. I am a former vocation director, and I realize in the past that it was not vocation directors who welded the most persuasive appeal for new seminarians. It was mothers! Today, because of the sexual abuse crisis, how many mothers yearn for their sons not to become priests?

I experienced the sexual abuse tragedy firsthand. When I arrived as pastor of the largest parish in my state, I inherited a prominent doctor in charge of the altar servers. There was something about his style I did not like, so I relieved him of his role. He later served five years in prison for child abuse. At the same time, I was told “Father Dan” would be my new assistant. One of the nuns who had served in another parish with Father Dan protested vigorously. When I protested to the bishop about his assignment, the bishop replied, “I forgot. He will not be assigned.” Like the doctor, Father Dan later served five years in prison the same crime.

The liturgical scholar Aiden Kavanaugh once said, “What the Church needs is more bishops!” Perhaps in the future we could learn from the Mormons, who have many bishops close to the “front lines” and aware of what is happening there. There is no shortage of potential vocations, only a short list of those considered qualified for ordination: single, celibate, and for the most part white males. The future of Catholic clergy is not hopeless unless we persist in making it so. 

Climate Change

Unless Armageddon is unleashed by nuclear war, we face no greater threat to the future of our planet than that of climate change.

At age 15, Greta Thunberg skipped school and demonstrated in front of the Swedish parliament and inadvertently launched a global movement to stop climate change. Hope is rekindled by young people such as her. I am reminded of the words of Isaiah 11:6: “And a little child shall lead them.”

The past is a prologue. The only present reality is Now. We still possess the power to enliven hope for our children and all other future generations. Let us act now so there can even be a future to hope for. As Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans: “Hope is not hope if its object is seen; how is it possible for one to hope for what he sees? And hoping for what we cannot see means awaiting it with patient endurance.”

I end with a poem from my book Living in the Shadow of Terror that feels freshly prescient:

At the end of the old century
Our lives were cocooned in certainty.
Advertising was our assurance of perfection.
We could purchase everything.
And the Market went up, up, and away.
We grew satisfied and complacent.
Life was on an aimed trajectory.
We had our eye on our target.
And we were in complete control.
We had conquered the moon
And were on our way to Mars.
When certainty prevails
Hope wains.
What more is there to hope for? 

The new century ushered in uncertainty.
And thus, an opportunity for Hope to thrive.
Hope comes alive when we are unsure.
When we encounter doubts and fears.
It is then when we need Hope.
And she comes always valiant
To walk into the future with us.
Hope does not flourish
On the brightest day,
Hope comes alive
On the darkest of nights.
And Hope is always ahead,
Never behind. ♦

William John Fitzgerald is a long-time contributor to Today’s American Catholic.

Image: The Tunnel of Love, a section of industrial railway near Kleven, Ukraine. Myroslava Rakovets / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
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