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The Lessons of Genealogy

They say that the past is a foreign country, which makes reading it a particularly frugal form of travel. But reading about one's own ancestors imbues it with a richer dimension because to see the rogues and heroes of your own line brings home the knowledge that the potential for good or bad lies within you. In that physical connection, ancestors become both oddly transcendent and immanent, other and yet within. Don Marquis expressed it in his poem Selves:

We are ourselves, and not ourselves . . .
For ever thwarting pride and will
Some forebear’s passion leaps from death
To claim a vital license still.

Ancestral lusts that slew and died,
Resurgent, swell each living vein;
Old doubts and faiths, new panoplied,
Dispute the mastery of the brain.

The ancient Hebrews understood that the blood that ran through the generations was the sign of their life. If you had Abraham's blood, you were saved as they understood salvation – as a guarantee your line would continue based on the promise in Genesis where Abraham’s descendents would be numerous as the stars in the sky. Christ came that all might be saved by his blood, a blood that is no less literal than that of the Hebrew's understanding.

The past's foreignness, whether a romantic notion or not, gives impetus to lyricism. Just learning the names of two long forgotten sisters of my great-grandfather William gave rise to the joy of thwarting death's mission to obliterate, if only in a token way. In the days before radical self-consciousness, modern scriptural exegesis and material uber-comfort, we can imagine in our mind's eye the clocháns where the Irish monks lived, who burned their prayers heavenward with scents so fragrant with otherness and asceticism and purity that they went straight to God.

I learned things large and small. I was chagrined to discover, for example, that my grandmother’s uncle, a priest during the 1920s and 1930s, was among the first to start the practice of having weekly bingo in order to raise funds to pay off a large church mortgage. This news seemed to lessen my own “pain” of volunteering to help out at our church’s bingo: "He ain't heavy, he's my grandmother's uncle."

My great-great grandfather's story is my favorite. He escaped the potato blight in Ireland and bought eighty acres in Western Ohio for a hundred dollars. The land was so wild he had to mark the barks of trees when he went somewhere to avoid getting lost. Being a pioneer obviously made it difficult to attend Mass, requiring that he either travel great distances or hope for a missionary priest to visit. From the local historical society: “Mr. Cogan was known to walk from Glynnwood to Piqua to be present at the divine Sacrifice of the Mass. It was his earnest zeal that prompted him to have a church close at hand, and he with others of the same sturdy faith united their efforts and established a pastorate at Glynnwood.'" I checked a map and as the crow flies the distance between Glynnwood and Piqua is some thirty miles, after which the lyrics to the Proclaimers song came to mind: “I would walk 500 miles / And I would walk 500 more / Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles / To fall down at your door.”

Sometimes a missionary priest came, such as Fr. Patrick Henneberry, a fellow native of Ireland who celebrated Mass at my great-great grandfather's house on St. Patrick's Day 1857. Fr. Henneberry ended up in doing missionary work in far-flung places like South Africa and New Zealand.

I noticed as I followed the generations in their tack backward from Ohio to the Atlantic coast to Europe a parallel tacking - that of a brand of Catholicism that becomes increasingly sacramental. Two eulogies of family members who died eighty years apart seemed to illustrate this, if only anecdotally. Both were by all accounts exemplary people, which is why the difference between the eulogies is so interesting. By virtue of their virtue, a variable can be eliminated and how we praise them becomes a cultural conceit, or, indirectly, an expression of doctrinal belief.

In the 1914 eulogy the deceased’s faith in God was emphasized and therefore one gets a sense of his partnership with God. In the 1999 version the person's altruism was emphasized and while one gets the sense they loved much, it seemed on the wings of her own strength and decentness. The more recent eulogy quotes the subject as having often advised "always think of others first and you will find happiness," which is sound advice while not mentioning the source of all happiness, and in the ten pages there is only one mention of God. It struck me as Pelagian, a belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that one is capable of choosing good without God’s aid. To be fair, perhaps it was a matter of style since a deeply lived faith doesn't necessarily mean a lot of words. “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” has been attributed to St. Francis. But in the 1914 eulogy there are lines like: "He passed away fortified with the last sacraments of the Church". A report of his funeral includes notice that "masses were celebrated at side altars at the same time by Rev. F. Meyers, pastor of St. Patrick's, Glynnwood, and Rev. Wm. A. Casey, Fosters, Ohio.". A funeral Mass of today would certainly be concelebrated, a practice which Cardinal Ottaviani, in a 1969 letter to Pope Paul VI, expressed misgivings over, suggesting it would "overshadow the central figure of Christ, sole priest and Victim, ... by dissolving Him into the collective presence presence of concelebrants." Ottaviani was resisting the tide of de-emphasizing the power and symbolism of the sacrament.

An American spiritual figure during the intervening eighty-five years between eulogies was Norman Vincent Peale, whose book "The Power of Positive Thinking" has sold over 20 million copies. Influenced by the Freudian psychiatrist Dr. Smiley Blanton, Peale's was one of the original self-help books and some wonder whether he was preaching the doctrine of Pelagius since God, while being invoked, seemed extraneous to the process. It was as if the doctrine of positive thinking using God as an instrument towards our end of better mental health, or simply feeling better about ourselves whether merited or not. One of Peale's prescriptions was to repeat the phrase "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me" ten times every morning, which is ironic given that that verse from St. Paul would seem to be about as anti-Pelagian as it gets. But is the person who says "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me" a hundred times saying it because they believe Christ is doing the strengthening or because psychology tells us that repeating positive things “works” and that you could as easily say “I can do all things through my Pet Rock, which strengthens me”?

At the turn of the twentieth century it would probably be safe to say that most Catholics would've considered the gospel account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as just that - a miracle. Christ, the God man, creating ex nihilo, from which wonder and amazement would naturally flow. Now the gospel story is often explained as a tale about how Jesus inspired the crowd to share the food they had in their cloaks. Some say that the crowd’s change of heart was the true miracle, yet even aren’t even pagans do as much? Even those who profess no belief in God can be moved by the example of unselfishness (in this case a boy who gave his five loaves and two fish) and do likewise. But for Jesus to be able to generate a material substance from nothing is something only God can do.

Why has the interpretation changed? Is it merely because miracles create discomfort in those who want a tame Jesus who gave us nothing but a good example? Is that most of us want to turn a blind eye to the miraculous, embarrassed by it in an age of science, or is it a more subtle psychology where the miracles of Christ are not seen as particularly relevant to own spiritual improvement? Christ, as ethical teacher, offers the promise of pragmatically learning a lesson and applying it, but Christ as miracle worker engenders praise and thanksgiving, which - like cloistered monasteries – tends to fall out of favor when the emphasis isn’t on the sacraments. That which can be seen and observed is in vogue, which might be why prayers and Masses for the dead have been de-emphasized, for how do you know your prayers for those in Purgatory are effective? You know solely on faith, not empirical observation.

Reading of the dead gives me a sharpened sense of my own mortality and the brevity of life. It’s impossible for me to see any of the lives of my ancestors as waste, even those who in the eyes of the world were drunken wastrels, because they contributed to the very fact that I’m alive. If he drank, and was lazy, and lived serially off his animal highs he also fathered a child – my grandfather. What could I possibly say against him? Who am I to judge? His life is as a miracle to me, as is my own.

In the end, there is little that is more exhilarating than imagining my aunt or uncle or great-grandparent has just arrived in Heaven, perhaps assisted by my poor prayers, and that they will in turn be a special advocate for me. What an inexpressibly consoling doctrine! That we, so utterly poor here on earth, can help someone even poorer than ourselves (i.e. the 'poor souls') is startlingly beautiful. What is more attractive than learning we can help someone into the arms of the Heavenly Father? And what better way for God to illustrate our mutual dependence? It points to the highly distilled, atomic-like power of the Church, derived only by virtue of Christ's identification of her as His Body.