A visitor recently remarked that, while waiting outside my door, he noticed that among the many people walking along Park Avenue, most grey-haired people were talking to each other, while almost everyone younger was absorbed in their iPods and their cell phones. You could say that they were conversing as well, but they were in control of what was being said and, since “conversationem” means the act of living with others, or “turning toward” them, they were not engaging in real conversation but what we might call versation. “Criminal conversation” came to be a legal term for adultery, so perhaps this technological “versation” is its equally criminal opposite: Narcissus text messaging Echo.
In such a culture, with its self-absorption and consequent short attention spans, interest in other people fades quickly. Celebrities who dazzle are preferred to personalities who illumine, but bedazzlement is only for a moment. Rare is the celebrity who becomes, in the term wrongly and tiresomely used by writers with limited vocabularies, “iconic.” An ephemeral perception of things makes it hard to understand public significance apart from celebrity-based “popularity” and “approval ratings.” Oscar Wilde overstated the case when he said that whatever is popular is wrong, although he was popular and wrong and started to become right only when he became most unpopular, but he had a point: “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art.”
I mention this because of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II. It is the nature of her office, and confounding to anyone who does not understand the institution, that she did nothing to earn her position other than being born. But that thought is reassuring to all of us who are made heirs of salvation by the gratuitous mercy of Christ the King. Through a Catholic lens, the Catholic peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has calculated that during Elizabeth’s reign, there have been six Popes, and her Catholic subjects have increased from 4.4 to 6.6 million in Britain, and from 25 million to 140 million throughout the Commonwealth. One-third of the primary schools in England are Catholic, and they comprise two-thirds of the most highly rated ones. During the Queen’s reign, the number of Catholic charities in the United Kingdom has grown to 1000. In the Commonwealth countries, the Catholic Church runs 5,246 hospitals, 17,530 dispensaries, 577 leprosy clinics, and 15,208 homes for the elderly.
After long centuries of conflicts between State and Church, this is a remarkable record, but it should not distract from the growing threats to holy religion from the saturnine religion of secularism throughout the world, and increasingly so in our own nation, where the extravagant theory of the divine right of kings is being replaced by the divine right of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Through all her decades, during which she must have regretted many developments outside her control, Elizabeth II has displayed a constant sense of duty and responsibility, knowing that with the perquisites of her office comes an unrelenting publicity that will not cease until her last breath – far different from public figures who may hope to retire and play golf if they really are that dull. She has kept the promise she made to the Commonwealth as Princess Elizabeth coming of age in South Africa:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong.”
The example of growing old gracefully in the harsh light of day is another gift of a monarch in contrast to mere celebrities who use the limelight to create an illusion of agelessness. Each monarch knows that there will be a time when the flag is lowered and then goes back up again, and the same crown is placed on a different head. This can be an exhilarating release from human respect. It is said that when a Hollywood starlet, about to be presented to the Queen, worried that the colors of their dresses might clash, she was told that Her Majesty does not notice what others are wearing.
The longest reigning pope was St. Peter, who may have been Bishop of Rome from 29 to 67 AD. Blessed Pope Pius IX reigned nearly 32 years. A monarch, but more than a monarch, and a “servant of the servants” for Christ who came not to be served but to serve and who was transfigured with a brightness not cast by stage lights, each pope knows that however long or short his years may be, or however popular or unpopular his words may be, whether a million attend his Mass or he offers it in a solitary cell, his authority is not conferred by human applause, but by the One who said: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain . . .” (John 15:16).