About two months ago, I posted an entry about an article I'd read in America about
an account of the Baltimore priest who did the bulk of the English translations for the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The author, the Rev. Joseph J. Gallagher, ended with an absolute gem of an anecdote, one that reminds you of the continuities and connections of history, how people then were able to talk to others who knew a more distant past, which seems amazing to us nowI'm a bit behind in my mail right now while I'm recovering, but I was surprised to find a note from Fr. Gallagher himself, who had tripped across my reference to and quotation from the article. He asked if I happened to know anything of the Mr. Shelley that he mentioned, the relative of the famed Romantic poet. I had to admit that I didn't, and that it was no prior knowledge of any of the players in his story that had grabbed my attention, but just the striking character of the anecdote itself, as well as the fascinating core content of the article itself. But I'll include here a part of my response to him that I just sent of and which has anecdotal value in its own right, to my mind. I think it captures something of why his story resonated with me.
I wrote there that it reminded me of the way that we are able to have conversations that cut across generations, and I remarked on how someday young people will be amazed to hear that I talked with veterans of the World Wars or with Fathers of the Council. What it more specifically reminded me of was a conversation that I had one night with a Holy Cross priest at Notre Dame after dinner, an elderly retired high school teacher of history, who recounted to me a family reunion when he was ten where he had the opportunity to hear from the lips of both of his grandfathers what their experiences were on the field at Gettysburg. This was in 1995, and so I was stunned to think about how I was still just one generation away – through Fr. Joe – from this event 132 years earlier. As a student of patristics, it particularly put me in mind of Irenaeus' careful claims of his own "apostolic descent" through Polycarp and the authority of having heard the gospel from those taught by eyewitnesses to the events. Similarly, Irenaeus was separated by around 150 from the ministry of Christ himself, while obviously some of the apostles lived on for decades. The weight of that argument of authenticity and reliability was suddenly all the more clear or forceful to me, as the oral account I was hearing of testimony of what Gettysburg was like jibed entirely with what I had been studying with a distinguished military historian at Notre Dame only weeks earlier.