Monday, June 13, 2011

Thanks, Russert

Hard to believe where the time goes, church.

As the oft-delicate dance between American journalism and Stateside Catholicism continues on, the discourse could use a merited moment to pay tribute to one of the divide's greatest bridge-builders of all.

Today marks the third anniversary of the sudden death at 58 of Tim Russert -- an iconic figure in ecclesial and newsroom circles alike, one whose premature passing left a void in both realms that remains well evident, even into the present.

The longest-serving moderator of Meet the Press -- now in its 65th year, the longest-running program in television history -- the ruddy-faced son of a Buffalo garbageman was arguably the most beloved American Catholic on the national scene: a journalist whose faith never got in the way of his craft but, as only the Gospel (aided by a Jesuit education) could do, only served to enhance his professional chops.

Still, it wasn't his barrage-style interviews and dogged reporting that won Russert a considerable affection that endures still; that came thanks to a blue-collar goodheartedness so strong it transcended the tube, an intense amount of charity work spread across numerous efforts, and in a particularly profound way through his books that became best-sellers -- first on his Dad's example of love, rooted in hard work and sacrifice, then a sharing of inspirational "lessons" of other fathers -- which employed his standing to communicate as seemingly no other has the reality that in a society undergoing a pronounced crisis of fatherhood, its shockwaves spread across innumerable aspects of American life, a solution had to begin somewhere… even if it was simply to remind the masses of the power of a Dad who did great things, and with a hearty dose of hope, banking that something would spring from it.

Whether you're talking policy or presentation, for a crowd seeking to assert a sense of moral leadership and concern for the good of the whole, the potent lesson in that latter gift was especially useful, even priceless.

Three years on, though, heeding the message remains a challenge largely untaken, its guidance as sage as its echo -- at least, among his own -- has gone unheard.

Above all, Russert's death genuinely, deeply shook no shortage of folks -- above all, the many 'round here who were so blessed to have known him, but just as much, the far more of us for whom his hour on Sunday morning was almost as awaited as the Lord's own (or, in some cases, equally so).

Indeed, even now, some of us still can't think of him without a tear (or multiple) in our eyes. Yet even for this, it bears remarking that his loss -- in particular, the days of epic, cross-network, nationally-broadcast grief that accompanied it -- bore evidence to a significant evolution come to pass in our time.

Much as they were deeply stricken, those early summer days and their flood of tributes arguably marked the most prominent, positive -- indeed, inescapable -- expression and praise of Catholicism at its best these shores had seen since the death of John Paul II… and in the years since, no moment has come close. Yet in the three intervening years between those titanic losses from our midst, something big seemed to happen: a powerful public shift implying that, as the future goes, the caliber of this church on the Stateside scene won't principally be judged by the example of its Bishops, Fathers or even Sisters, but the caliber of our Moms and Dads -- the lay faithful, who (the stats being what they are) increasingly form the backbone of this People of God at practically every turn, and more than we have in two centuries, on whose daily witness and work all the rest only falls all the more... and now, apparently, as much in the public square as within the walls.

To be sure, it's haunting and then some that Tim's call that "it is imperative [for] our bishops continue to work tirelessly to bring about a healing and reconciliation with all those who have been harmed… and vigorously enforce measures that insure the illegal and immoral abuse of our young will never, ever be tolerated by our church again" remains a salient, needed word going into this week's USCCB Plenary, no less than nine years since that searing week in Dallas. Then again, even from beyond, maybe that's a reminder for us in the here and now that, tough and thankless as it can often be, the need for one -- or, far better, many more -- to fulfill the role Tim sought for himself, that of "respectful servant in the laity" of this Body, continues on well in earnest.

It might seem belated now, but in reflection of the priceless gift and power his witness gave both in life and death -- and, in his wake, the role Meet the Press played in the nation's judgment of Catholic identity as the subsequent campaign-season ensued -- Russert had been selected as these pages' 2008 Churchman of the Year….

Despite innumerable attempts, though, that piece never felt written to sufficient snuff. But even now, the accolade and the affection remain… and for those of us here below, to no small degree, so, too, does the work, in as many ways as there are the number of us.

Ergo, on this rough anniversary and always, thanks, Tim....

...and, all that said, off to Seattle, and -- for a certain scribe who idolized him and does still --another chapter of the ever-delicate story... yet one, as always, that needs to be told.