By Msgr. Owen F. Campion
For me, a high point of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., has been the opportunity to celebrate Mass for the delegation from my own high school, Father Ryan High School, in Nashville, Tenn. These young people, so committed to the Church’s belief in the dignity of human life, inspire me. Their faith impresses me. It must impress others.
Publicly affirming Catholic belief is our best evangelization. Often, we never fully know what positive impact our religious witness has.
We meet at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill, thanks to the hospitality of its pastor, Msgr. Charles V. Antonicelli.
This year, waiting for the students, I looked over the pamphlets in the vestibule rack and saw a history of the parish. I picked it up and noticed that the church’s cornerstone was laid in 1868, in the presence of “the president of the United States.”
In 1868, the president was Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor. Johnson’s time in the White House was controversial. Indeed, he almost was removed from office by the U.S. Senate.
However, U.S. Catholics should remember him as a strong friend and defender of Catholics when anti-Catholicism was very strong. When he was elected to Congress, his first speech on the floor of the House of Representatives was to denounce anti-Catholicism.
When he ran for governor of Tennessee, his opponent was a Know-Nothing, bitterly resentful of Catholicism. Johnson made anti-Catholicism a campaign issue, and he won.
When the first Catholic church was built in Greeneville, Tenn., his hometown, he generously contributed and sat in the front pew at the dedication. He sent his children to Catholic schools. Two of them became Catholics. He frequently went to Mass in Washington.
Even though most Catholics at the time were poor and without power, so often spurned and insulted, Johnson saw in them a vision of a greater reward and of true reality. Their steadfast faith convinced him that there was nothing evil in Catholicism. So he defended Catholics when their loyalty to the country was questioned.
Although often accused of being a “secret Catholic,” Johnson never became a Catholic, or at least not according to any record found so far. (An old legend was that his daughter baptized him on his deathbed.)
Coincidentally at St. Joseph’s, I met a Dominican priest from St. Dominic’s parish in downtown Washington. We began to talk. I remarked that President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) often went to St. Dominic’s to pray, and that he was very friendly with one of the Dominican fathers.
After leaving the presidency in 1969, Johnson returned to his farm in central Texas. He and the local Catholic pastor became close friends. He often attended Mass, even on weekdays. On many mornings, he and the pastor had breakfast in the rectory.
When he died, his widow and daughters arranged for his burial, on the family farm, to be according to Catholic rituals, believing that this would have been the late president’s wish. The pastor whom he had come to know at the local parish presided.
Lyndon Johnson never became Catholic, although some say that he was about to convert when he died. His younger daughter became a Catholic.
Why was he drawn to Catholicism? Just out of college, he taught school in Cotulla, Texas, where most of his students were children of Mexican immigrants and also Catholics. He said that these typically poor Mexican families always impressed him. He saw that, somehow, in their hearts was a treasure more precious than gold.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of OSV. This column appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of OSV Newsweekly.