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Eleanor Roosevelt: “If You Ask Me”


eleanor_roosevelt_mccallsWhen I was a boy, my mother subscribed to six women’s magazines.
 
I was a compulsive reader even then, so I leafed through “McCall’s” and “Ladies Home Journal” and so forth as soon as they arrived.
 
One thing that caught my eye was a column written by Eleanor Roosevelt, who by then was the widow of
Franklin Roosevelt.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote more than one column, but the one I read faithfully was a question-and-answer feature called “If You Ask Me.”
 
Besides the fact that I was just a nerdy kid, I was fascinated by the give-and-take of that format.
 
Recently, I discovered that all of those columns, along with other work by Mrs. Roosevelt, has been archived by The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and I have started to re-read them.
 
Actually, I started with the first column, which appeared sixteen months before I was born, so I’m reading some for the first time.
 
In the column that appeared in June 1941, one of the questions submitted by readers was whether Mrs. Roosevelt thought religion should become a more dominant part of daily life.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote that it should, adding “but there is only one way … and that is by bringing it out of the church and into the lives led by religious people.’’
 
Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a church-going Episcopalian, made this same point on other occasions, and she also wrote that for Christians, the model for living out religious faith was the radical lifestyle of Jesus.
 
And she took her own advice in the sense that she was—to use a 21st century expression—“out there,” seeing first-hand what was going on in the country and beyond.
 
Even in the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt had the air of a fuddy-duddy about her; in fact, she often mentioned that because she was so old-fashioned in her manners as a child she was nicknamed “Granny.’’
 
But she was a pioneer in campaigning against racism and other forms of prejudice and working on behalf of women and labor and youth—and that made her very unpopular among some Americans, and she was—and still is—a controversial figure for other reasons.
 
That’s a complicated story, but what interests me at the moment is that statement Mrs. Roosevelt made seventy-five years ago.
 
One the one hand, it might seem self-evident that religion practiced in church is of little value if it isn’t practiced outside of church.
 
But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when Pope Francis says virtually the same thing—making of himself a living example—the idea is treated in many quarters as though it were a new revelation.
 
In fact, though, Jesus made the same point in the first century in his criticism of pious people who wouldn’t help a stranger in need.
 
There is a lot of angst over the declining numbers of people who attend Mass regularly, or at all.
 
But the pope and other Catholic leaders argue that folks will be attracted to the Church, not by seeing other folks going there but by seeing and hearing those who do go to church also witnessing to their faith by what they say and what they do at home, at school, at work, and in the community—including, as Francis likes to remind us—those parts of the community that are farthest from the Church.
 
It’s such a simple concept, but a concept that, in our own time, Pope Francis sees as an ideal yet to be achieved.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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