By Brian Browne
Much has been written in the secular media on President Joe Biden’s overt Catholicism and how that might challenge the already complex and daunting tightrope walked by Catholics in the public square.
As only the second Catholic president in American history, it is President Biden’s personal Catholic faith — more so than a public adherence to church doctrine — that seems to be the guiding force in his long public career and is central to his world view. He frequently references God, cites scripture, quotes Pope Francis, and recalls the healing power of prayer in his own life especially during the tragedies that have defined his political narrative. Even before being elected President, Biden would conclude all his public speeches by asking God to bless our soldiers and our country. He wears his Catholic faith on his sleeve.
The teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church were evident during the scaled-down events and ceremonies surrounding the Biden Inauguration under the theme “America United.” Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory offered the invocation at a solemn pre-inauguration memorial service to honor and remember the more than 400,000 Americans who have succumbed to COVID-19.
Inauguration Day began with morning Mass at the historic Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington; a Jesuit priest prayed the invocation before the Oath of Office was administered; and in his inaugural address, Biden not only quoted St. Augustine but — in a call for national unity — invoked, “My whole soul is in it,” a quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863 during another dark and deeply divided time in our nation’s history. Biden, a politician with a 50-year career in public service, launched his third and successful candidacy for President by referring to his campaign as a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
While the Biden Presidency has already shined a light on Catholicism, the next four years will no doubt advance another unique characteristic of the 46th President, and that is his lifelong appreciation for Irish poetry. Perhaps this is most fitting because the Irish have long endured and sought to overcome a divided country, a Great Hunger, a civil war, religious segregation, sectarian strife, and suffering. Through all of this and more, this little country that has been invaded, conquered, and occupied has produced some of the most memorable and inspirational poetry in the world.
It has been well documented that as a child to overcome a debilitating stutter, a young Joe Biden would memorize and recite Irish poetry in front of a mirror. At 78, Biden paraphrased Irish novelist James Joyce as he bid an emotional farewell to Delaware before traveling to Washington, DC for the inauguration. He frequently quotes the ‘And hope and history rhyme’ line from “The Cure at Troy” by Irish poet Seamus Heaney and the same poem was recited by Lin Manuel Miranda during the ‘Celebrating America’ inaugural event.
In the days following the assault on our democracy that took place on January 6 — ironically, the Feast of the Epiphany — I found myself revisiting another Irish poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. The mystical, apocalyptic poem rich in religious symbolism was written in 1919 following the end of WWI and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence and while Yeats’s pregnant wife recovered from the Spanish flu.
In just two stanzas, the century-old poem describes the difficult and eerily relevant conditions still found in today’s world and goes on to surmise that those conditions will bring about a monstrous second coming radically unlike the first one described in Scripture:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
While things did fall apart when the U.S. Capitol came under siege, the center did hold. Our democratic process was temporarily delayed but not denied and the continuity of government and sacredness of our electoral process endured.
The deep political divide and the very idea of the center not holding should be a concern for all engaged citizens, for this is where most people live. Far too much of our society and our politics has become all about division and putting contrasting labels on people. We are Democrats and Republicans, blue states and red states, liberals and conservatives, even membership in the Catholic Church is often categorized between progressives and traditionalists or lapsed and active Catholics. We can and must all do better.
At this most difficult hour in our political history let us move forward like the magi who had but one purpose; to follow a light to find the truth. Like the wise men of old let us find our way home but by a different route, one that is free of the political rancor and divisive rhetoric that culminated at the Capitol on the Feast of the Epiphany.
And if you appreciate good poetry read “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate, who at the inauguration shared her beautiful poem and some much-needed hope for the future.
Brian Browne is the Assistant Vice President for Government Relations at St. John’s University where he also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science.