- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

Rev. J. Cletus Kiley’s response to the 2008 Murnion Lecture

            Well, good evening, everyone.  Well, first of all, let me say what an honor it is to be here for something that acknowledges the contribution of Cardinal Bernardin, and also of Monsignor Phil Murnion.  Those men were two; I have to say, two of the great mentors in my own life, personally.  And so when I was first invited to come to this program to be a responder, it was certainly out of a sense of duty, of respect for those men, and certainly for the Cardinal’s vision for common ground. 

            When the program began to change after Tim’s death, Peter’s absolutely right.  I remember that awful afternoon.  Peter called and said:  I have terrible news — Tim died.  And, of course, I’m thinking:  Well, the program probably won’t go on.  That evening, Father Dan Coughlin, who’s here — the Chaplain of the House of Representatives — called me and said:  What are they going to do?  I hope what they’ll do is let this lecture tonight be–  Let Tim be the icon to learn lessons.  Let Tim’s life teach us about politics, and about a common ground — for both our country and for our Church.  And, Brian, thank you very much for sharing Tim with us, because I think you’ve held Tim up as that icon.  And there is a lot you just shared with us.  And I think, over these past two weeks, we’ve all heard so many different things.  You know, you and your colleagues at MSNBC — I don’t know.  I was up late at night, and people were going like 24-7, it seemed.  And you could tell how much this man was beloved.

            There are a number of themes that were just raised, Brian, and I think they’re really important ones, that I’d like to hold up again as part of this icon that is Tim Russert.  Brian just mentioned that Tim was certainly, and clearly and chiefly, Catholic.  And, I think, for this audience this evening, these are important words.  It’s an important frame to consider what we want to reflect upon this evening.     

            I don’t think we get that many opportunities to have somebody who’s so well-known — and, as Brian described him, as a man that you’d think a President died.  I like that phrase.  And that here’s someone from the Catholic community that gives us all a chance to look:  What is that prism like?  What is he pointing out to us?

            And there were a couple things that Brian mentioned that I think reflect, certainly, a very Catholic viewpoint — a Catholic spirituality, if you will … kind of an innate spirituality — and that first thing is that search for truth.  From the beginning of our roots as a church, we have been on that search — and we could list all the saints who have helped us on that road, looking for truth.  There are theologians here, so I’m not going to try to do it — I’ll let them do that.

            But there are also a number of other Catholic themes that I’ve heard from Brian, and that we’ve heard during these last two weeks when people talk about Tim Russert.  Some people described him as sort of an Everyman.  That even though he had achieved huge success in life — we’ve heard these stories about how … you know, Russ and Me — we heard how he never forgot where he came from; his neighborhood; the group he grew up with, he stayed in touch with. 

            And then we heard, and saw, the presence of the Mercy Sisters.  The Jesuits — when he would talk about them– I know we caught different clips of his life talking about those influences in his life.  And he did that with a nostalgic joy, but something much more than nostalgia was at work there.  There were real lessons that he did draw from them, that he carried through his life — and two of those, I think, are humility and that search for truth.

            When I look at Tim’s life — and I was glad that we did adapt this program, so that we could let Tim be the icon to look at things — one of the lessons that came through, I think, as you think about the life of Tim Russert — and, particularly, as we came to know him on Sunday mornings in our living rooms, in a very intimate way — one of the things that probably struck you–  It certainly struck me when I’d watch Tim Russert interviewing somebody.  Especially, you know, you’d turn it on like:  Well, this is going to be a juicy one.  And he had that ability to be utterly disarming. 

            And I think:  What –?  You know, I was reflecting on that.  That charm  it was not just charm.  I think that there was a real sense of making human connection with whoever was there.  That, first and foremost, he recognized that the human connection comes first.  There is the story — there is the dialogue that’s going to happen.  But I think what he let us see, before we heard a word, was a respect — a very fundamental respect — for that other person. 

            I think he created that human connection.  And in the dialogue, no matter who he was interviewing, there’d be some reference to the Buffalo Bills — or they’d be something that would ground him once again, and you’d have this very human moment.  Or maybe there’d be some reference to:  By the way — how’s your mom doing?  Now, that’s pretty disarming, when you think you’re going to be in this big political conversation, and someone’s like:  Oh, oh.  She’s doing a lot better — thank you.  He had the knack to do that.  And I think that’s one of the first principles that I would hold out — one of those images that comes through that icon.

            It reminds me of my first pastor, Monsignor John Hayes, who, when I asked him in the first week I was with him:  Do you have any advice?  I’m a rookie.  He said to me– He took a puff of a cigar, and a little sip of something for the cough — (laughter) — and he said to me:  Yes.  Never add to their sorrows, and never take away from their joys … and you’ll probably be a good priest. 

            I think Tim Russert would have liked Monsignor John Hayes.  I think they’re cut of the same cloth.  It was making that fundamental human connection first.  Ionesco said:  Ideology divides us — suffering brings us together.  And I think when you really can live with that, and breathe that — understand that — I think you can make that human connection.  And I think because Tim Russert always knew who he was, and could see the other person — and probably could connect on that level first with people — it’s something very powerful.         And I think it’s probably the first lesson for common ground.  There are lots of rules we have for establishing common ground, but I think that very first one is the most fundamental:  making the human connection. 

            The second thing I would draw from Tim as an icon — this would be the lesson:  Treat them as your guests.  And I think he did.  You know that when he brought people on his show he wanted the truth; he wanted to push them.  There was a great clip on recently, during some of the reminiscence about his life. 

            I remember him interviewing Al Gore.  And he kept asking a question, and Al Gore would answer something else.  And Tim would come back again … and he’d come back again.  You know, he didn’t dodge away from it.  And, yet, there seemed to be– Both in that interview, and so many others, there came a point where he knew the person was getting uncomfortable … or paralyzed.  And he let them be for a moment.  That’s when he might ask:  How’s your son?  How’s your mother?  How’s your dad–?  It became human again, and he changed the dynamic. 

            He treated them as guests — really as guests.  So this issue of hospitality, I think, is something that came through.  You can look at so many other of the interview shows, and they’re really:  Gotcha.  You know, in the reviews of Tim’s life, nobody ever said he was a gotcha kind of person.  He got the story, but he fundamentally received and welcomed people as guests.

            The third lesson I would see, maybe, as an icon — and as I listened to Brian, I think these things were coming through very clearly — and that is that Tim Russert always seemed to remember who he was, where he came from.  And, for himself, and for others, he hoped that they would be their true self.  And I think that gets back to that search for the truth that was so essential. 

            And I think it’s a very Catholic theme in all of this.  I agree with you, Brian — I think it really is.  I remember working– When you referred to Tim’s struggles with the sex-abuse crisis in the Church, as was mentioned; I was very involved with that, as was Sister Mary Ann.  And there were a number of times– And I know that there were gatherings of a number of folks from media — not just as media folks, but they were also Catholics.  And Cardinal McCarrick was involved in some of those conversations.  Because people had to process how this was impacting each of them, as well.  All of us going through that had to do the same thing, didn’t we?        

            And I think the great thing that Tim did — and as always had to face this — was:  This is a real challenge to our faith.  It shook everybody up.  I don’t think there’s a person in this room who wasn’t shaken by that crisis.  Some perhaps more deeply than others, but, certainly, we were shaken up by it.

            But he stayed … he stayed.  And on Sunday mornings he was still–  You know, he got to church — and he made sure his son got to church.  And, struggle though it was, there were commitments made.  And I think that’s part of that Catholic ethos — maybe that Buffalo Catholic ethos he came out of — but something really important to hang onto. 

            When he treated with guests, again, the search for the truth, I think he didn’t want to deal with personas.  I mean, he probably could spot a phony a mile away — I would guess so.  I never met him, but I have the feeling that that’s the kind of person Tim Russert was — and he encouraged people, really, to tell that truth.

            Another theme that came through — and I heard this from a number of, Brian, of your colleagues, as they were reflecting over these past couple weeks about Tim Russert.  So many people said he was humble.  And, it seems to me, in the search for common ground, this is another one of those essential ingredients — humility.  St. Theresa of Avila says that the foundation of the spiritual life is humility.  And, again, I think Tim probably learned this humility — and, therefore, it was foundational to the spirituality.  He lived an ordinary life. 

            I suspect he got this fundamental stance — this stance of humility — reinforced in a number of ways.  First, he grew up in an Irish household.  (Laughter)  And it would not be uncommon in an Irish household to hear things like:  Well, who does he think he is?  (Laughter)  Or:  Hasn’t he gotten high and mighty?  (Laughter)  And:  Sure, didn’t we know him when?  (Laughter)  In an Irish household, the lessons of hubris are taught early and reinforced daily.  I know, believe me.  (Laughter)

            Yesterday morning, Congressman Sam Farr — who was a friend of Tim and his wife, and was at the funeral — was sharing a conversation he had with Luke Russert, who had taken great delight in some of the funeral plans.  Luke told Sam Farr that it was his idea that, when they got to church for the funeral, to make sure — ’cause they had just gotten word that Barack Obama and John McCain were going to come.  And that he really wanted them to be seated next to each other.  So that when they got to that part of the Mass — (laughter, clapping) — this is true — they would have to turn to each other and shake hands.  (Laughter)

            Now, I think there was a little bit of Tim Russert in his son when I saw that.  (Laughter)  You could see that glint in the eye.  And coming out of this humble background, but always with a little bit of mischief, I would say.  And what I’m told was that, actually, that moment of the Mass came, and the two candidates — or presumptive candidates, I should say — sort of stood, turned, looked, and just hugged each other.  Luke Russert got the day — and I think his father probably laughed across heaven.

            Another influence, I think, for Tim around humility was from the Mercy Sisters.  As Brian said, they played large at his funeral and even larger in his life.  And there are many here tonight.  These are Catherine McCauley’s daughters — the “walking-around nuns” they were called when they started out.  And they set out to work among the poor, the infirm and the unwanted.  And they were Irish — at least, they had those roots.  And so, once again, that hubris would be challenged.

            But there was an ethic of choosing the lowest seat and an ethic of service, and I think that imbued in Tim Russert early on.  And as we look at our own search for common ground, this stance of humility, with an ethic of service — this is what gets people to the table.  Not ideology; not the sharpest statement of philosophy.  We don’t ask anyone to leave their philosophies at the door — Tim Russert never did — but he did insist you bring your humanity in, your humility and some appreciation for the unwanted, the poorest and the neediest.  And I think he drew that, again, from the Mercy Sisters.

            And then, finally, from the Jesuit priests and brothers.  I suspect that they imbued Tim — and we all know they’re tough teachers — and probably really encouraged him on that search for truth.  But I think, at the core of Ignatian spirituality again is that theme of humility.  The first principle and foundation in the Ignatian exercises is to know who’s the Creator … and who’s the creature.  It’s a real simple lesson, but you got to keep going back to it. 

            And I think Tim Russert took that lesson to heart.  He interviewed a lot of people — a lot of important people.  He was a celebrity in his own right, and he traveled in that world.  And, yet, I think he knew who the Creator was and who the creature was.

            And I think that’s part of why he is this icon for so many of us.  I would say, in our own search for common ground, that that principle and foundation is something we need to come back to before we start the discussions, so that nobody in the discussion takes the role of Creator.  And I think Tim probably would have been a person to call us to that.

            A couple of other observations, and then I’ll get out of the way.  I think it would have been really fun to watch Tim Russert through the rest of this year, and I know you really miss that opportunity.  I think there are some things that he would have gotten a kick out of, and would have held up for us on our own search for common ground. 

            I think he would have found himself going back to Pope Benedict’s encyclical “God is Love,” paragraphs 27 and 28 — which talks about the intersection of faith and politics.  I think he would have found it very interesting.  I think he would have found comfort, and would have been able to share that in the political realm, with our political leaders — as Pope Benedict says that the Church does not wish to exercise political power. 

            I think, from other folks, he would have heard that there shall be no law with regard to the establishment of religion — and he would love to have them start talking to each other about that.  There’s a bumper sticker you see here in town sometimes.  It says:  Separation of Church and state is good for both.  I think he would have loved to had that conversation … and get that going.

            I think he probably would have come back to the question of the “communion wars,” as they call them in town, and ask some questions about what’s most effective.  How do we –?  Does this work?  How do politicians respond?  How do bishops respond?  I think he would have tried to crack that open a little bit more.

            Not too long ago, I was able to participate in a dialogue with a number of members of Congress and one of our bishops.  The bishop entered very humbly, as a guest.  He was respectful, but also very clear about his own role as a teacher.  At the end of the session, the member turned to me and said:  This was great.  I never heard any of this before.  I saw folks standing on common ground that evening that they didn’t even know existed.  And part of it were many of these lessons that we could draw from this icon called Tim Russert:  the human connection; received as guests; humility — and dialogue came out of that.

            As an observer of Washington politics, I know Tim Russert would have talked about what they call here the “permanent campaign mode.”  Which is, you’re on vicious attack — not just during the election cycle, but once you get in office — you just keep at it, and you keep at it and you keep at it.  And I think Tim Russert would have got a kick out of the number of candidates running right now, who are letting people know how bipartisan they are.  That certainly wasn’t the message about 18 months ago.  And I think he would have had some people on, saying:  What’s this all about?  I think he would have had that Irish glint in his eye and would have had some fun with it.

            Finally, I think Tim Russert this year might have identified a tension in the search for common ground for us as a nation, and I think we could apply this, also, to ourselves as a Church.  He might have asked politicians:  Where does the good of the party trump the good of the country?  Or the good of the caucus trump the good of the House, or the Senate?  Or the good at getting reelected trump the good of your people, or the common good? 

            These are the kind of questions he would have cracked open for us.  And I think that while we certainly miss him, he is given to us as an icon which we can return to.  And I think see some of the wonderful themes — I think very strong Catholic themes — that help us make sense out of life.  And, certainly, help us make sense out of our politics.

            Thank you.