By Father Leonard Peterson

I had the chance on vacation to spend some quality time with two of my loves, both of them safely in a book. It’s a new one at that, which combines my love of trains with that of history. The book is “FDR’s Funeral Train” by Robert Klara.

Before moving on, let me explain the two loves. As for trains, I can’t pinpoint exactly when and where it started. A likely answer is the model set that my dad set up for Christmas in the living room of my boyhood home “many moons” ago. That fascination blossomed, and I grew to embrace trains of all kinds. I suppose I’m one of the few people who doesn’t mind it when a long train forces drivers to halt.{{more}}

My love of history came along a lot later in life. I didn’t enjoy the subject in the course of my formal education, even in the seminary. I attribute that disdain to teachers who presented history as a dull collection of dates, and the deeds of outsized personalities.

Now I enjoy learning more and more about the subject. PBS and the History Channel are enjoyable teachers. I believe that most pastors relish the stories that tell the informal histories of their parishes as well as the formal ones printed in anniversary books.

Having been born during the presidency of Harry Truman, I have more personal memories of his illustrious predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I learned about Roosevelt chiefly from stories my parents told me.

One thing I do remember from childhood is the sight, sound and shall I say the “majesty” of a steam locomotive. So while roaming the aisles of my neighborhood Barnes and Noble (soon to be an extinct experience) this book almost leapt into my hands.

Dear reader, don’t be put off by its title. Klara gives you just a smattering of the technical language associated with railroads. Certainly there is no assumption that you have a particular love of trains. Rather, the author gives us the story of who was on this special train and what they did and what they saw along the way to the Hyde Park burial.

We relive the outpouring of grief among Roosevelt’s staff and the general public. We observe the reactions of the president’s death from his staff, and that of the Truman staff. You’ll witness the strength in the behavior of Mrs. Roosevelt and the humble Southern courtesy of the Trumans. You’ll read about the political maneuvering that went on among them all. And yes, we are treated to just enough information about what turned out to be two trains, not just one.

It was a statement toward the end of the book, which inspired this column. Author Klara offers a comment on the various funeral ceremonies for Roosevelt that we learn were largely improvised on that train ride. Then he tells us how they were repeated “only 18 years later at John F. Kennedy’s funeral.” When I read that it dawned on me that both of those funerals turned out to be catalysts for something lacking today in our country: unity.

Our country was not to experience oneness again quite so strikingly until the aftermath of the 9/11 horror. But only nine years later here we are split by spanisions of all kinds. It even appears in our beloved Church, especially when labels are tossed about indiscriminately and attached to people. I wonder why that is? Is it a ploy to spice up cocktail conversation? Or is it something darker that likes to create an “us” and “them” situation?

In the case of the Church I’ve asked myself what unknown catalyst it would take to restore at least a semblance of that picture we receive in the Acts of the Apostles. Surely there is always prayer.

In lieu of a long slow train ride that most of us would never take, one that would force a meeting of bodies and perhaps minds as well, prayer remains the most potent. One thing for sure: any superficial proposal for unity would be, if you’ll pardon the railroad allusion, way “off track” and destined for the scrap yard.

Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.