On an adjacent wall was the Hamlet-like Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, trying to make up his mind on whether he should put the Catholic Church at risk, while Jews were being murdered by the train-full.
The most compelling story was that of Imre Bathory, a Hungarian who, like many other Hungarians, put their own lives at grave peril by trying to save fugitive Jews. Asked to explain, Bathory said that because of his actions:
"I know that when I stand before God on Judgment Day, I shall not be asked the question posed to Cain; 'Where were you when your brother's blood was crying out to God?'"
At Fordham's commencement, one would have taken considerable risk in alluding to the crying-out blood of Iraqis and Afghans. Only happy, prideful talk is de rigueur on such occasions, together with honoring prominent people -- with little heed paid to how they earned such prominence. A White House post suffices.
From the Grave, Albert Camus
In 1948, still under the dark cloud of what had been a disastrous world war, the French author/philosopher Albert Camus accepted an invitation to come to the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.
To their credit, the Dominicans wanted to know what an "unbeliever" thought about Christians in the light of their behavior during the Thirties and Forties. Camus's words seem so terribly relevant today that it is difficult to trim them down:
"For a long time during those frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation...
"It has been explained to me since, that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not all that clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood. Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case?
"What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.
"It may be ... that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise, or else on giving its condemnations the obscure form of the encyclical. Possibly it will insist on losing once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago.
"What I know -- and what sometimes creates a deep longing in me -- is that if Christians made up their mind to it, millions of voices -- millions, I say -- throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals, who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and other people." (Excerpted from Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays)
It may be that the Dominican monks took Camus seriously; monks tend to listen. Vatican functionaries, on the other hand, tend to know it all, and to urge pope, cardinals and bishops to be highly "discreet" in what they say and do.
Help From the Outside
Sometimes it takes a truth-telling outsider to throw light on our moral failures.
South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey, erstwhile chaplain to Nelson Mandela in prison and outspoken opponent of Apartheid, has this to say to the platitude-inclined, patriotism-preaching American clergy in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks:
"We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose and confront the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly or indirectly, by the poor of the earth.
"You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. All around the world there are those who long to see your human goodness translated into a different, more compassionate way of relating with the rest of this bleeding planet."
Albert Camus and Peter Storey are among the true prophets of our time. I think the late Madeleine L'Engle also had it right when she wrote: "I think if we speak the truth and are not afraid to be disagreed with, we can make big changes." The biggest obstacle is often within us, she observes. "We get so frightful."