[Editor’s note: William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative intellectual founder of National Review and host of the long-running Firing Line, died nine years ago today, on February 27, 2008. Then editor of National Review Online, Crux contributor Kathryn Jean Lopez remembers how his faith helped her renew her own.]
“I saw you at Bill’s memorial — across a crowded cathedral — but didn’t get to say ‘hello’,” someone told me.
I had evidently been seen at the conservative event to be seen at back in 2008 – William F. Buckley Jr.’s memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Never mind that I was an ocean away.
As much as it would help with multitasking, it wasn’t evidence that I’m capable of bilocation. More likely, this particular person simply assumed I was there – figuring I had to have been there — so he had to have missed me. But I wasn’t. Because when God calls, that’s the only place to be.
The decision about the memorial Mass was tough. Bill was, of course, the founding editor of National Review, the magazine I had started working at my last semester as an undergraduate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
He was not only someone I admired and learned from, but also someone I had come to love. I watched as he continued to give, even after his heart was broken by the death of his wife, Pat. I watched as he worried the conservative movement wasn’t seeing the threats on the horizon – most especially Islamic extremism – as his generation did when facing the Soviet threat.
The man I had learned my best vocabulary words from, who I read for years about politics and culture and life, was a loving man, growing older, getting tired, yet still moving forward — he died working at his desk at home in Stamford, Connecticut.
The conflict that stopped me from going to his memorial Mass was a pilgrimage to Rome, my first time to the Eternal City, which was on my calendar. His smaller Mass of Christian Burial was private and once the date for the memorial service was announced, as far as I was concerned, there was no way I was going to Rome, even if plans were in place.
But friends who were going on the pilgrimage – who had invited me and made the whole thing plausible for me in the first place – were working on me. The clincher was when the priest leading the retreat promised me Mass above St. Francis of Assisi’s remains for the intention of Bill’s immortal soul.
I went to Rome and it changed my life. This was not only my first trip to Rome, it was my probably my first significant vacation time after more than a decade at National Review. It was a step away, ironically to focus on what, as it happens, was most important to “WFB,” as he was known.
Late into the night, as the hours approached when Bill’s Mass would be happening in the States, I sat yards away from St. Peter’s Basilica, where St. Peter and St. John Paul II and countless other human remains rest, and re-read Bill’s account of a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the Marian pilgrimage site in France that draws so many of the sick in body, mind and spirit to its waters that have been healing for so many.
He wrote: “[The pilgrims] are in Lourdes because of this palpability of the emanations that gave birth to the shrine. The spiritual tonic is felt. If it were otherwise, the pilgrims would diminish in numbers; would, by now, have disappeared, as at Delphos, which one visits as a museum, not a shrine. What it is that fetches them is I think quite simply stated, namely a reinforced conviction that the Lord God loves His creatures, healthy or infirm; that they—we—must understand the nature of love, which is salvific in its powers; and that although we are free to attempt to divine God’s purpose, we will never succeed in doing so.”
I knew that tonic well, but he had me at the palpability. It was everywhere in St. Peter’s, complete with its open-arms colonnade – the bustle of tourists seemed no distraction because His presence was so overwhelmingly all-encompassing. It was everywhere in the air. The beauty had me looking up, within, and to Christ Himself in a renewed way.
Bill was rooted, because of the way Bill was raised — Bill never became too successful, too smart, too sophisticated to remember God and His goodness and that all good gifts that came from Him. I understand he prayed the Rosary daily, which is never a bad start; and, as Chuck Colson put it, the last chapter of his book on faith, Nearer, My God, which focuses on his mother, is worth the price of the book.
He believed that stewardship, gratitude and beauty all point to God and our obligations to Him. It took humility, something we could afford to regain today. And this humility didn’t keep him from being bold, courageous and creative.
I may have missed Bill’s memorial Mass, but by doing so, I had close encounters with the Light within Him, the Light that brings out the best in us, drawing us to Him, to live as we were made to be.
As Bill wrote about America at her best, specifically, the Bill of Rights: “It grew out of a long, empirical journey, the eternal spark of which, of course, traces to Bethlehem, to that star that magnified man beyond any power of the emperors and gold-seekers and legions of soldiers and slaves: a star that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that we were made in the image of God and were meant to be free.”
May we always be so.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior editor at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.