For a few years now I have been writing, under the title "Cloud of Witnesses," brief reminiscences of dead people I knew when they were alive. I stopped at 50, and in the very short time it took to assemble them for a book, there were another five to be added to the list. The fact that there are more dead people now than there used to be is irrefutable, even to the narcissist, but some of the living people I know act as though this were not a fact but a curious factoid — rather like the seven-year-old altar boy who was incredulous when I told him that I had once been seven.
Besides the fascination of individual biography, there is mankind’s collective biography known as history. One school of historians makes a plausible case for understanding history as nothing but biography. It certainly is a more interesting approach than economic or political history, and one would be hard pressed to imagine economics without real people selling goods, or politics without real people selling themselves.
As a boy, I’d spend rainy afternoons in my grandmother’s basement, reading bound volumes of Life magazine back to its first issue from November 23, 1936, which featured items about a one-legged mountain climber and Helen Hayes. The second issue included paintings by Adolf Hitler and a passing mention of his deal to supply machinery to Japan. The volumes stopped at the end of 1942. By then, all my uncles who collected the magazines had enlisted and were in some of the war scenes readers at home only saw in photographs or on the weekly "News of the World" segments in the movie theaters. From then on, history to me was personal, whether reported by Herodotus or Henry Luce.
I have recently been left a cache of weekly church journals and newspaper reports from 1942 (given me by one of the subjects of my "Cloud of Witnesses" columns), which was among the most chaotic years in the biography of man. It began with the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the simultaneous German assault on North Africa. The "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question" was plotted at Grossen Wannsee, MacArthur left Corregidor, the Bataan Death March began, Laval declared Vichy a German ally, the blitz started over England in full force, German submarines tried to sabotage Long Island and New York City (causing my mother and some lady friends to join an ambulance brigade in anticipation of an invasion of New Jersey), the U.S.-Soviet lend-lease agreement was signed, the Allied convoys to Murmansk and Archangel were launched (with personnel including my father), the Germans attacked Stalingrad, the Australians advanced on El Alamein, and the first nuclear chain reaction was set off on a squash court at the University of Chicago.
Of immediate interest to my clerical eyes in these dusty cuttings are the transcripts of Vatican Radio broadcasts, the sermons of bishops in beleaguered countries, papal messages to the conflicted nations, and the obituaries of churchmen who had no time to think of themselves as heroes. For the next few monthly columns, I hope to crib and quote from these dispatches, to revive dormant memories, and inform younger minds vacant of such memories. The year 1942 had more glaring villains and shining saints than almost any other year. It might help to repair some wrong things that have been said about Catholic witness in that crucible of the modern age. At least I shall have a chance to regress to my boyhood in Grandma’s basement, where she kept a framed copy of John McCrae’s poem "In Flanders Fields" from the earlier Great War, which was supposed to end all wars, and in which her two brothers were killed at Ypres.
Those two wars were, in a sense, one. On July 18 of this year, Henry Allingham died in England at the age of 113, a last survivor of the million of his countrymen who died in World War I; he saw the Battle of Jutland and was too old to serve in World War II. The distance from 1942 back to the end of World War I was no longer than we are from the introduction of the first version of Windows by the Microsoft Corporation. But the common biography of those who were at Thermopylae and Agincourt and Verdun and Pearl Harbor blots out distance altogether, if only we manage to stay human.