by Mary Ellen Bork
The fiftieth anniversary of college graduation that unimaginable moment that is suddenly here gives rise, necessarily, to a reflective mood. It is a bit like standing on a mountaintop and surveying the scene below, wondering about the highlights and the shadows on the landscape. That is how it felt in June at Manhattanville College as a large group from our class of 1963 gathered. I came across remarks by Pope Francis that speak to my many musings, recalling a fortieth reunion of a secondary school graduation in Argentina where he had taught. He said “At the reunion there was time and space to remember, commemorate and freely celebrate life; celebration that escapes all control or reductionism and leads us to scrutinize the journey we have made from the sapiential perspective of maturity. (I especially like that combination of wisdom and maturity.) During their meeting these men remembered. Their reminiscing was not a mere sum of anecdotes and information; nor was it the Proustian assumption of the eternal cycle of life. Their remembrance was a meaningful event in the tide of their existence.”1
I was struck by two of his observations; that after fifty years we are remembering past events from a perspective of wisdom gained in living; and, secondly, that this act of remembering, and remembering together, is a meaningful event in itself. Admitting to ourselves that we have gained wisdom and what form it takes in our lives is worth pondering. Several of my friends at the reunion felt that sharing our memories and doing so together, in person, was creating a new bond or deepening the existing bond that began fifty years ago, an experience that made us happy, even joyful.
In the past five decades we have lived our own personal histories in the context of world historical events that covered the end of the twentieth century: World War II, the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s, the space age, the end the Cold War, the downfall of Communism, the rise of terrorism, the beginning of the third millennium, the papacy of Pope John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis. Different presidents have led the country as we live through rapid changes of a digital age as momentous as the printing press.
In recalling these events and our personal histories we think about the meaning of time. When we are younger time seems to go by slowly and stretch before us, horizonless. As we get older it seems to pass quickly and we sense a quantifiable end. As members of our family pass, we focus more on the eternal dimension of our life, one that is always there but not always in our line of vision.
Our college experience from 1959 to 1963 marked the end of a post-war culture and the beginning of the social and cultural changes of the 1960s that are still with us. We lived in a female environment at Manhattanville with a certain decorum, a sense of tradition, and a vibrant religious culture created by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. We had excellent teachers. The facilities were beautifully situated in Westchester county, the former estate of Whitelaw Reid, former owner of the New York Herald Tribune. Just seven years before we arrived in 1952, the nuns moved the college from Manhattan, where it had been for over a hundred years. Desegregation was one of the social justice issues of the day and we were encouraged to know the issue and to take action to make a difference.
Now fifty years later we have integrated many of the good things that we learned and continue to grow intellectually and spiritually. We all acknowledged the positive influence of the Sacred Heart tradition rooted in faith and a dynamic sense of engagement with the world. Some of us sent our children to Catholic colleges hoping they would have a similar experience, but they did not. The Catholic culture on campus was alive and formed us perhaps more than we realized at the time.
In 1971 the college became co-educational and dropped its public Catholic identity under the leadership of Elizabeth McCormick. It became a victim of the cultural changes of the 1960s in the belief that it was better to be more progressive and fit in with the cultural direction of radical secularism, a trend that has deepened since then. Now religion no longer has the cultural influence it had when we started college. Believers find themselves often marginalized, and churches have to defend their First Amendment right to religious freedom.
For me, the spiritual values that were part of our education have been the greatest and the most lasting gift during my life both as a religious for a while and then in marriage. Saint Paul teaches that we should be rooted and grounded in love and that was the core of the Sacred Heart approach to life.
Dana Gioia, poet and writer, recently said at the Catholic University commencement that a very Catholic sense of human existence guided him through life. He said, “A Catholic education trained me in the habit of high imagination. It gave me the long view through history into the past and into the future and even beyond time into eternity. This habit filled me with a sense of the richness of our existence in a world where we feel the presence of things both visible and invisible. What better training could a young poet ask for?”2 His words resonate with me. The Catholic vision of life rooted in faith and Catholic history the intellectual habits and interests learned in college have enriched my life and continue to do so. As Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, faith is a light that illumines our human experience from within. It is a call and a promise. It makes all the difference.
The weekend reunion gave us a chance to remember the past embodied in our classmates (and their outstanding and patient husbands) who attended and shared their experiences and relationships past and present. Some people remembered people and events differently, which made for some hilarity.
The college has changed over fifty years, continuing its mission of education with Sacred Heart roots but without the Sacred Heart presence. I am glad we could gather on the campus that we knew so well and remember together in that place. This reunion reminds us that life informed by the gospel is fragile and needs constant attention and celebration.
The Mass on Sunday with music carefully prepared by Barbara Cullen both Gregorian chant and polyphony, which we sang every Sunday during college was nostalgic, heart-warming, and at the same time heart-wrenching, as we realized the things we thought would be permanent had been lost. The college itself has become a symbol of all the change we have lived through. But the Mass reminded us of the eternal dimension of life that we are made for. What we have learned here will be with us for the remainder of our journey and for all eternity.
Saint Peter said that with God a thousand years are as a single day. So fifty years may be as a few seconds. The reunion rekindled our gratitude for our education and especially for our faith, which will continue be a light unto our path.
Mary Ellen Bork, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is a freelance writer and lecturer on issues affecting Catholic life and culture. She serves on the Advisory Board of the School of Philosophy, Catholic University of America, and Christendom College. She is on the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Chesterton Review. For several years she has facilitated groups studying Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. She is doing research on Catholic leaders during the English Reformation and 16th- century Catholic religious leaders. Her articles appear in the National Catholic Register, The Washington Times, Voices, and The New Criterion. Mrs. Bork, wife of the late Judge Robert Bork, lives in McLean, Virginia.
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