Monday, October 12, 2015

Continental Day

"Continental Day" was the silly name I gave Columbus Day in my senior year of college, when I repurposed it as the principal national holiday in a utopian alternative United States which I created in an assignment for an American Political Thought course. (It was 1971, after all!). I called Columbus Day "Continental Day," not out of any incipient political correctness, but as a way of emphasizing the enormity of Columbus' accomplishment and its ongoing relevance for any contemporary American society. For, whatever else we are or think we are, we are first and foremost the product of the exploration and settlement of this huge continent by generation after generation of diverse peoples who immigrated here from somewhere else (until recently, mainly from Europe).

Columbus, of course, is an ethnic hero for Italian-Americans.He is also a founding figure for this continent's predominantly Hispanic culture. Hence today's celebration of el día de la Hispanidad. And, of course, there were people already here on this continent before Columbus, whose distinctive history and sufferings deserve more attention than they have typically received. But October 12, 1492, was a pivotal turning point in human history when the peoples of previously separate continents, until then totally unknown to each other, came together in both good ways and bad to create something - a society and culture - completely new, of which all of us are the products. Not only our country but I personally (and almost everyone else in this continent) would literally not exist, had it not been for that original encuentro, that coming together of the "old" and "new" worlds in the building of an even newer society and culture on this American continent.

Religiously, of course, that encuentro initiated the evangelization of America. In the United States, the history of that evangelization not only deserves to be celebrated in terms of its past but still speaks specifically to our current condition as a nation. Thus, writing this past week about Pope Francis' recent American tour in The New York Times (,  even a conservative op-ed writer, Arthur Brook,s observed how "the secret to American unity ... is to remember that we are the poor." In his column, Brooks contrasts a European Church, "historically an institution of the powerful," with the American Catholic Church," established as the church of outsiders." Throughout American history, he notes, "it has been the poorest of the immigrant groups - the Irish, Italians, and Latin Americans - who represented the face of American Catholicism. Excluded from power in their countries, the poor opted to build their lives and churches here."

In an era when churches and parishes are closing, we might do well to remember that, back when we were unequivocally the Church of the poor, we were successfully building big and beautiful churches and everywhere opening parishes, schools, and hospitals. Columbus Day is a good reminder of who we are and where we came from, of whom to identify with in today's social struggles and whom not to identify with in contemporary political divisions.

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