September 23, 2014
If there is a ground zero of my youth, a time when everything changed, then 1963 would be it. In September, I was to begin classes at Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic college in the country. Inspired by the idealism of the New Frontier, I had enrolled in their School of Foreign Service, my hope being to join the diplomatic corps and help President Kennedy save the world. We all know what happened in November of that year, but in June there was another death of equal import. Pope John XXIII, the force behind the aggiornamento aimed at shaking up the Catholic Church, died of stomach cancer, leaving Holy Mother Church in a state of doctrinal uncertainty. The twin pillars of Western civilization -- church and state -- sustained mortal blows in a short period of time, leaving the rest of us dazed and adrift. The dream was gone before I even got started.
That realization came very quickly in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For days we were preoccupied with the events surrounding the funeral. I was at the Capitol when the wagon bearing the coffin made the final turn and stopped in front of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline and John-John. I can sill see them standing alone on the steps of the Capitol. The months and years that followed only increased the feeling of being abandoned by history. What sense did any of it make now? The idea of going out to save the world for LBJ held little appeal. As the New Frontier segued into Big Muddy, the sense of a disconnect between the dreams I had and the reality I was facing increased.
Equally important was the tumult in the Catholic Church. In 1964, Latin gave way to the vernacular, and the altar was turned around to face the people. These were massive changes back then. I won't pretend that I was deeply religious, but like every generation of Catholics before me, I had been indoctrinated with a peasant version of religion at Sunday School that really got inside your head. Much of that was turned topsy-turvy by Vatican II. What little belief remained was further shaken by the Jesuits at Georgetown, who opened my eyes to a more sophisticated and less certain model of theology than was contained in the Catechism. Eternal truths weren't so eternal after all. This fed into the general dynamic of the times: question everything. I guess it was natural that the first thing I would question was my own sense of purpose in the world.
None of this was helpful in terms of my academic pursuits. Georgetown's School of Foreign Service had a very rigorous curriculum, a mandated triple major in history, government and economics, along with intense exposure to theology and a foreign language in the first two years. The fact that I was not a very attentive student didn't help. I was growing in all kinds of different directions back then, and academics was usually of secondary interest to my exploration of life in the big city.
As fate would have it, I managed to scrape by and get a diploma. (How I passed the final trial by fire of oral comprehensives -- a holdover from the Middle Ages that was dropped not long after I graduated -- is a miracle I have never fully understood.) I was lucky enough to make some life-long friends who managed to endure despite the decade-long tidal wave of social and political changes that swept over our generation. As for my education, the best was yet to come.
It's hard to understand the tremendous upheaval of the 60s unless you were raised in the 50s. The foundation of our early lives was the near-total belief in God and the American Way, best embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance we all had to recite as children. One nation, under God. So simple, so comforting, so solid; yet those rocks upon which we were to build our lives would be crushed by the tumbling tide of history in an astonishingly short period of time.