Thursday, February 15, 2024

Getting "On With It"

Seventy-seven years ago, on February 15, 1947, my parents, Felix Franco and Camille Bonaccorso (photo), were married  at a Saturday morning nuptial Mass at Saint Nicholas of Tolentione Church in what was then justifiably called "the Beautiful Bronx." There is a wonderful scene in the final season of The Crown, the acclaimed Netflix series about my parents' contemporary (albeit a few years younger than either of them) Queen Elizabeth II, in which the Queen responds to her grandson Prince William's anxieties about dating, "We met someone, then married them, and got on with it" (season 6, episode 7).

Like so many of the Queen's wise words in The Crown, that sentence effectively expresses my parents' generation's expectations and experience. The "Greatest Generation," as they were so rightly labelled by Tom Brokaw, experienced unique historical challenges in war and peace. Having won the war and brought home what President John F. Kennedy would later call "a hard and bitter peace," they were ready to do what generation after generation had done for all of human history - meet someone, marry, and get "on with it." And that they did, producing the famous "Baby Boom" generation, of which I am proudly a member.

It is no secret that, since then, something has gone amiss when it comes to the basic business of family formation - getting "on with it." Some other countries are even worse off than the U.S., but the entire developed world seems to have been afflicted. It is not yet quite the biological catastrophe that British author P.D. James described so poignantly in The Children of Men, her 1992 dystopian novel set in England in 2021, which frankly portrays the tragic results of mass infertility, a world without a future, a world without hope.

We're not there yet, of course, but James' depressing depiction of what happens when, for whatever reason, the continuation of the human race has seemingly ceased, is a profound warning to all of us of where we seem to be heading. Unsurprisingly it seems to be commentators of a more conservative orientation who seem most alert to this crisis in humanity's future. Among conservative pundits, Ross Douthat of The New York Times has been particularly eloquent in highlighting this issue and the catastrophic prospects it portends for our world.

On the other hand, as The Atlantic's Brad Wilcox"The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage" has recently written, “Social media, meanwhile, tends to send bad signals to kids and young adults. The dopamine-driven ethos that infuses much of TikTok and Instagram enriches the executives at Sequoia Capital and Meta but provides little support for anything but living for the moment, and undercuts the values and behaviors needed to sustain long-term love, not to mention marriage." Meanwhile, more traditional media, Wilcox notes, "oscillate between occasionally acknowledging the benefits of marriage and frequently praising the alternatives to it." 

At their wedding, 77 years ago today, my parents would have listened as the celebrating priest read the Rituale Romanum's "Exhortation before Marriage," one of the treasures of the pre-conciliar liturgy and one of the most beautiful English-language liturgical texts ever composed - now sadly lost from the marriage rite at a time when perhaps its message may be more necessary than ever. That "Exhortation" famously began:

My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care. Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. 

Then, after a brief excursus on the specifically sacramental character of Christian marriage, the "Exhortation" continued:

This union, then, is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future, That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death. 

I wasn't there, of course, when my parents listened to those words. Yet, I myself heard them many times as a child, when I served at weddings as an altar boy. I still particularly remember remember certain sentences which especially impressed me: Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love. And when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.

I knew, of course that my parents weren't perfect. I assumed that only television families like those on Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were perfect. In fact, like any child, I was acutely aware of what I perceived to be the imperfections in our family life. Yet I also learned to appreciate the struggle to approximate that perfection of love ,which is the key to all human striving and the ultimate aspiration of all moral living.

That extremely sensible and wise "Exhortation" ended:

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on. And if true love and the unselfish spirit of perfect sacrifice guide your every action, you can expect the greatest measure of earthly happiness that may be allotted to man in this vale of tears. The rest is in the hands of God. Nor will God be wanting to your needs, he will pledge you the life-long support of his graces in the Holy Sacrament which you are now going to receive.

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote at the beginning of his novel Anna Karenina"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy did not know about television families, which (at least in my childhood days) really were happy families all happy alike. Off television, in this vale of tears, it seems every family is unhappy in its own way. But hands and hearts joined in true love and unselfish spirit transform the ordinary challenges of family life into opportunities of grace. I think of one former classmate of mine who, after his first child was born, told me his respect for the human race had greatly grown now that he more fully understood the challenges men and women undertake to keep the human race going, what The Crown's Queen Elizabeth would have called getting "on with it."

I recall with special personal gratitude the commitment my parents made 77 years ago today to get on with the business of keeping the human race going, I honor them and all the other striving parents I have known, and I pray that their example will rekindle in today's world that necessary commitment to marriage and family formation.

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