ROME – For most of my adult life, I’ve believed the following quote came from President Ronald Reagan: “There’s no limit to the good someone can do if they don’t care about getting the credit.” That’s probably because I was in high school when Reagan was elected, and so he’s the one I remember saying it.
Recently, I discovered there are actually multiple attributions for the quote, ranging from Benjamin Jewett, an 19th century Oxford theologian and classicist, to British journalist Charles Edward Montague, to President Harry Truman. However, according to Garson O’Toole, who bills himself as a “quote investigator,” the most likely author of the adage was a Jesuit priest named “Fr. Strickland,” who’s recorded in an 1863 diary as having said it.
The reference is almost certainly to Jesuit Fr. William Strickland, who helped keep the Jesuits together in England after the suppression of the order in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV. He served as the procurator of the order after the English Jesuits affiliated themselves with the Jesuits in White Russia in 1803, where Catherine the Great refused to recognize the suppression.
There’s something fitting about it having been a Catholic priest who coined the famous phrase about being able to accomplish great things as long as you don’t want the credit, because of all environments on earth where that’s true, the Vatican merits a special pride of place.
Every now and then, the top ranks of Vatican officials may achieve a kind of celebrity. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger certainly did after 1984, which marked the publication of Rapporto sulla fede, his blockbuster interview book with Italian Catholic journalist Vittorio Messori, published in English as The Ratzinger Report. With his strongly conservative views about the state of the Church post-Vatican II, the dividing line in Catholic debate for the next couple of decades became whether one was positively or negatively inclined to Ratzinger.
Right now, the typical unchurched Roman could probably name two Vatican personalities, one currently employed and the other decidedly on the outs: Cardinal Konrad Krajewski of Poland, who, as the pope’s right arm in the distribution of charity in Rome, has set the city on fire with gestures such as personally climbing down a manhole last year to restore electricity to an illegal dwelling where it had been cut off; and Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal ambassador to the US and a former secretary in the Vatican City State, who’s become the voice of opposition to all things Francis.
In general, however, and especially below the ranks of the cardinals and archbishops, Vatican officials live and move in the shadows. Maybe they occasionally appear on a panel at a conference, maybe they give the odd interview to a media outlet, but for the most part they can walk down the street, move through airports and go to the movies untroubled.
Many Vatican officials may spend the better part of a decade working on a document that will never bear their name, and for which they’ll never receive any credit. They may prepare the ground for a momentous papal decision, but in the end it’ll be the pope who signs off on it whom history remembers. They may organize papal trips that change the course of events, but nobody in those places could even pick them out a lineup.
When we think about the consequential figures in Catholic life, for obvious reasons our minds tend to go to the people we’ve heard of. On the left right now, for instance, many would cite Jesuit Father James Martin, or Sister Simone Campbell, as Catholics who matter. On the right, people might point to Archbishop Charles Chaput, or New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, or Raymond Arroyo of EWTN.
To be clear, all those players do matter. They have followings and influence, and they help set the terms of debate.
But here’s the thing: What about the people who work behind the scenes, whose names never become household words, who will never have the experience – as everyone I cited above has had, multiple times – of walking into a room and watching people burst into cheers and applause simply because they’re present?
Despite that, the people I’m talking about keep showing up for work every day, and they keep trying to effect change from within. (Granted, there are some people in the system who are simply bureaucrats punching a clock, what the Italians would call menefreghisti, meaning “I don’t give a damn,” but they’re not everybody.)
It takes a special kind of courage – one might almost call it faith – to plug away, year after year, without really caring if someone ever applauds you for it.
Of course, not everyone I’m describing is pulling in the same direction. Some are conservatives, quietly trying to make the case for tradition, and others are more progressive, trying to push the envelope as far as they believe it’s presently prepared to go. What unites them are two points: First, a conviction that the institution, whatever its faults, is worth serving; and second, that accolades and renown are less important than results.
The Catholic Church already has a feast of All Saints, primarily intended for all those women and men who’ve never been formally canonized but who nevertheless quietly lived lives of exceptional holiness. Maybe we also need a feast of All Officials, designed for that vast anonymous legion of women and men who, over the centuries, have tried to do enormous good from the inside, without caring about who gets the credit.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.