It has been a tough year to be both an American and a Catholic. Like many others, I have found it difficult to remain hopeful while seeing story after story of hurt and division. But in the midst of this tumultuous season, there was one story I covered in 2018 that gave me hope to hold on to.
The day after the Kavanaugh hearings, I was scheduled to go to St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill to do a parish profile. With a heavy heart from the divisive hearings the day before, I sat at my kitchen table wondering what I was going to ask the pastor and parishioners.
I remembered a scene from The West Wing when President Bartlett and his family went to St. Joseph’s for a private Mass as they waited for news on what had happened to the president’s daughter, who had gone missing (Season 5, Episode 1). As I re-watched the clip from that episode, I was struck by the country’s unity displayed in it, and by the way the fictional president turned toward his Catholic faith during a time of crisis. I realized that St. Joseph’s doesn’t just play the part on TV – it really does provide a place of refuge and unity, and has been doing so for 150 years.
With my West Wing (and probably Holy Spirit) inspired realization, I felt a renewed sense of mission to tell the story of this parish, and when I arrived there to speak with members of the parish community, the story was even more powerful than I expected.
The parish’s pastor, Father William Gurnee, who worked on Capitol Hill before becoming a priest and has now returned to minister to Hill staffers, recalled how at a recent funeral for a former parishioner and senator, the first few pews of the church were full of members and former members of the U.S. Senate, from both political parties.
“That is very important that this be a place where they both know that they’re welcome and they can talk to each other or be part of something that unites them when they are in a town that is constantly telling them to be divided,” he said.
Father Gurnee also noted how each year on Ash Wednesday, the church has three standing-room only services where people who work on the Hill gather to start Lent together. He said it is a poignant moment to see all of those powerful people come forward to receive ashes on their foreheads, and to say to them, “remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
That image has stuck with me. Whichever side of the political spectrum we sit on, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all called to return to Him in Heaven. When we look at someone whom we vehemently disagree with, we can take comfort in knowing that we have at least that in common.
The ashes also point to a reminder of our own mortality, and how small our lives are compared to the history of the country or the world. Issues that seem huge to us may seem small when viewed in the larger scale of things, like the history that has swirled around St. Joseph’s Church throughout the past 150 years.
One of my favorite poems, “I am a little church” by E.E. Cummings, is told from the perspective of a small church building, and describes how it watches the seasons pass by and sees the cycle of birth and death going through it. The church stands tall through it all, not worrying about the changes that often cause humans turmoil.
In the last stanza, the church says, “winter by spring, I lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever: standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence (welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness).”
Like that little church, St. Joseph’s has had a close vantage point to a lot of victory and a lot of struggle taking place around the United States Capitol. I can’t image how many protestors have walked by its doors, how many conflicted congressmen have prayed over legislation in its pews, how many times it has basked in the glow of the National Mall’s Fourth of July fireworks, and how many generations of America’s leaders have been baptized, confirmed and married within its sanctuary.
Just like St. Joseph’s has persevered through the years, I know the country and the Church that I love so much will survive this difficult season. And on the days when the news cycle seems particularly dismal, I reflect on that church's symbol of hope, and start to believe that I, too, can persevere.