My first car was a Volkswagen Squareback. Marcus, my good friend (he still is), and I named her ‘Leo’ after a girl who brought a lot of pizzazz into our lives (she still does). Leo – the one with four doors and stick shift – was, like her namesake, wonderful.
After our sleep deprived weekends she managed to return us to the college campus in time for Monday morning classes. When her electrical system went on the fritz, she came back to life with very few fuse replacements. We never ran out of gas because she always managed to make it to the nearest filling station on fumes. And, whenever her battery was drained, she cooperated with our push-start-pop-the-clutch remedy. We realized, of course, that she was just an automobile, a structural system of mechanical parts. But for us she was like a person. So much so, that each time she made it to the top of a steep hill in second gear we would pat her dashboard and say, “Way to go, Leo!”
This nostalgic recollection of a part of my life from over a half century ago came to mind last week when I read a translation of Pope Francis’s (then Cardinal Bergoglio) address in 1999 to an association of businessmen in Buenos Aires. On the subject of profane messianism, he states: “This (profane messianism’) appears in various forms of social and political undertakings. Sometimes it shifts the ethos of personal actions to structures, with the result that ethos doesn’t create structures but rather structures create ethos …”
Have you noticed how more and more procedures and policies control our lives? I see it in the large bank where I work which, of course, is part of an increasingly regulated industry. It is almost as though human judgment is discouraged if not prohibited. Where discernment was once respected as a virtue, it is today regarded as a vice. Limited to quantifiable realities, structures and systems control our activities and allow no room for the personal intuitions of faith (trust), hope and even charity.
When my friend Marcus and I anthropomorphized a car by vesting it with a human personality, we elevated it to a superior status. We, two young men caught up in the ethos of poetry and joie de vivre, made a mechanical structure ‘human’ by naming it ‘Leo.’ Admittedly, this was a whimsical and even romantic gesture.
But, where is the romance today when structures demean, if not eliminate, our humanity, our ‘humanness?’ Ethos, which is our ethical make-up, no longer employs structures and systems as instruments in service to itself and our humanity. Rather we have relinquished our ethical responsibility and have allowed ourselves to become instruments in service to inhuman structures.
The good news (amazing how these two words keep surfacing!) is we humans are created in the image of God and, as a result of the Incarnation, our humanity is elevated and restored to that of children of God. God’s children don’t ‘cry uncle.’
On behalf of the Board of Trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation, may I wish all of you a joyous Eastertide, one brimming with the blessing of hope.