by Fr. Pat Patterson, C.PP.S., Cincinnati Province

How often have we heard that we are the strongest, the mightiest nation on earth? The richest nation on earth. That we are “the shining city on a hill.” One that fledgling democracies look to imitate, to find guidance and protection. And then came January the 6, 2021 when several thousand citizens stormed our nation’s capital with the seditious intention to overthrow the duly elected government. After six hours of skirmishes the police were able to restore order and Congress returned to continue the work they had begun earlier that day.

Reaction was swift. Immediately and throughout the day tweets and commentaries poured in. One of the tweets that caught my attention was that of Olympian gold medalist Simone Biles. She tweeted: “…embarrassed but not surprised…disgusted but not surprised…sad but not surprised…angry but not surprised…speechless but not surprised.” Yes, we had all these feelings and more. In a short communique the following day, president-elect Joseph Biden said, “We could see it coming.” There was no surprise.

In years to come books and books and books will be written to analyze how this happened, to investigate the words and actions and omissions that allowed this to take place. And another score of books will be written about how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, about how to strengthen our democracy, about how to make a more perfect union, a more solid and more unified nation.

Politics (and therefore governance) has come to be understood as service for the common good, a service that is born of, for and by the people. Governance (and therefore politics) is the power of service. When governance becomes anything else—the pursuit of an ideology, the pursuit of power, the pursuit of a personalized cult—then the halls of governance begin to fracture, the seeds of division take root, and the fragility of democracy is laid bare.

These days many in America feel betrayed. Fragile. Polarized. But many also feel challenged to find our way towards a more healthy, more solid democracy. A democracy truly dedicated to serve the common good. I think the way forward is found in the word “service.” A servant needs above all to be humble. There you have it. Humility. Humility comes from the Latin humus—that rich black earth which allows (encourages) seed to take root, to grow, to bloom, to bear fruit. Humility then is not weakness, but rather strength, strength that promotes life.

Yes, we need truth, hope, transparency, trust, reconciliation—all these and much more. But without the rich, life-giving ground of humility there will always be a shade of distrust, a suspicion of secrecy. A humbled nation can accept the truth. A humble leader can inspire hope and trust. Together they can work towards reconciliation. Together they (we) can build a healthier democracy and a stronger nation, stronger in the power of service to the common good of all.

Despite his own personal demons, Abraham Lincoln called the nation to listen to its better angels. Living in a time of great national division and political fragility he showed us how to be a servant for the common good. As the Civil War was winding down, just one month before General Lee surrendered, Lincoln in his second inaugural address concluded with these words: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Truly a model of humility in victory and of service for the good of all, especially those most needy. 

Almost a century and a half later a new “servant” appeared on the world stage—Pope Francis. In the homily of his inaugural Mass, he said: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.” Sometime later he encouraged: “If we can develop a truly humble attitude, we can change the world.”

To govern with a “truly humble attitude” in no way implies that there be a lack of accountability in front of criminality. All crimes must be investigated, decisions must be taken, and the appropriate penalty applied. We are a nation of order governed by laws.

On Sunday, January 10th, 2021, Pope Francis, in reference to the violence at the U.S. Capitol a few days earlier, said: “I exhort the authorities of the State and the entire population to maintain a high sense of responsibility with the aim of calming souls, promoting national reconciliation and safeguarding the democratic values rooted in American society.”

This is a big challenge that Pope Francis has placed before us regarding the threats that have been aimed at the nation. It seems to me that there are two ways to respond to a threat. One is to feel intimidated, to cower in fear and to hide (or flee). In this case the threat (and those who level it) hold one paralyzed. The other way is to see the threat as a challenge, a call to respond and to overcome it. The threat/challenge that faces us today is perhaps the most serious since the Civil War. Our response must be equally serious. Along with the a challenge, Pope Francis also offers a possible response when he says “the authorities and the entire population” must work in cooperation in one common effort. That effort is to work together (“the authorities of the State and the entire population”) to promote the “United States of America, and (to) the Republic…, one Nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

This article appears in the New Wine Press, February 2021.