It was a bright and icy morning in the early fall of 2014. I had spent two days by the serene Holland Lake, Montana, sheltered by the incomparable majesty of the high Rockies. During the long drive home, the return of cellular reception suddenly unleashed a multitude of shocking texts.
My friend Bill was making a desperate attempt to ask for prayers. His wife Susan, a uniquely capable, energetic and deeply spiritual woman had just suffered a devastating stroke. It was life-threatening. Thanks to God's grace and remarkable medical care she survived. Thanks to her tirelessly loving husband, she, eventually, flourished.
Survival, though, was only the first step on a long and arduous path. The brave and intelligent Susan had to relearn all the simple gestures of daily life.
Everything progressed with heartening ease, except for speech. Observing Susan slowly learning to talk again was both inspiring and incredibly painful.
Since the beginning of our presidential electoral cycle I have often thought of Susan and Bill and their heroic efforts to reconquer communication.
As a nation we have lost the ability to communicate to one another. We speak and we listen only to those with whom we agree. Essentially we are only talking to ourselves in a culturally impoverished sort of self-preoccupied stupor.
We are exclusively interested in arguments that confirm our firmly held convictions. They are not arguments, of course, but simply repetitive reinforcements.
When I was a student in Rome, an old man shared with me this ancient Roman wisdom: "The person in Rome who possesses real power is not the Pope but the one who reports the news to the Pope." Intriguingly, he said this in front of the stunning Farnese Palace, historically notorious for heights of Renaissance architecture and depths of political corruption.
By choosing only one source of news, we have essentially surrendered our electoral power to large businesses whose degree of success depends largely on how angry we are at each other. The truth is that cultivating rage is an effective business model.
All the Election Day exit polls have clearly demonstrated that the only bipartisanship of this presidential race was in the widespread dissatisfaction of the electorate with both candidates. Even if one takes into account the intricacies of the primary system, it is fair to deduce that if the majority is unhappy with the choice, then the choice was somehow imposed on the majority. It defines "understatement" to consider this situation harmful to democracy.
Much of the Media are becoming "opinion" Media, whose objective is more conditioning than informing. Many dark historical precedents remind us that this environment suppresses conversation and, as a result, gives rise to extremism, almost irreversibly.
Without dialogue our thoughts evolve in isolation. Our ideas of society and nation form without the refining effect of the dialectic process. We drift further and further apart as vessels in an increasingly turbulent ocean until our views become literally irreconcilable.
The community of Butte, Montana that I have the great honor of serving, is, for a variety of fascinating historical factors, an intensely political town. It cherishes strong opinions and even more the strongest articulation of them. Butte never shies away from a political fight. It is part of the DNA of a mining town with a fierce tradition of labor struggles. Butte did not survive a history of hardship by being timid.
Three years ago, I met Greg and Susan. It was at a fundraiser for a great cause at which Susan was a very entertaining MC. I had no idea of their politics. Most importantly, I did not care. Over time, we became friends.
Last year Greg became a GOP candidate for Governor of Montana. He is a brilliant high-tech businessman and a compelling speaker, so I invited him to speak to our Catholic High School seniors about entrepreneurship. The students were captivated. I also introduced him and his wife to my congregation at one Mass as good friends visiting from nearby Bozeman. There was not a hint of campaigning in these occasions.
In a hyper-partisan society, a priest is effective only when strictly non-partisan. However, when you live authentically within a community the boundaries are not so distinct. Several friends told me, very politely, that my association with Greg and Susan was politically sensitive. I would never have suspected it. In fact it confirmed to me that we have, unwisely, allowed politics to overreach much too far into our lives. Friends are friends in and out of political season.
Regardless of political opinions, I remain, unshakably, committed to welcoming everyone who respects the sacredness of our "House of Prayer." In this, I answer to a Higher Authority.
Every week I address my congregation. In order to remain meaningful, as well as satisfy my curiosity, I read incessantly, including a wide variety of diverging opinions. Sometimes they offend me. Most of the time, the opinions challenge me to sharpen my message.
As a priest in an intensely political town, I have reached the following conclusions. The future health of our Democracy depends on three attitude shifts by the electorate:
_Reacquiring a healthy skepticism with all sources of news.
_Committing to listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree.
_Accepting the discomfort of being challenged by new and different ideas as a responsibility and a privilege of living in a free society.
As long as we do not give up on this privilege and meet our responsibilities, we can remain optimistic about the kind of country we will pass on to our children.
As Susan and Bill, brilliantly, taught me, learning to speak to each other again will be the hardest accomplishment. It will also be the most rewarding because, with it, the elusive electoral power will be restored to the people.
Note: Incumbent Governor Steve Bullock, D won a close reelection with 49.6 percent of the votes to Greg Gianforte, R 46.1 percent.