More than 60 years after The Catcher in the Rye debuted on the American literary scene, Shane Salerno's insightful biography, Salinger, posed this question: Is it possible that the 1951 novel is the last classic work of fiction about World War II and the first great book of the counterculture, all rolled into one?
This historic overlap, an eclipse of eras, explains the incredibly lasting impact of JD Salinger’s masterpiece upon the nation's conscience. During his much-acclaimed visit to the US, Pope Francis delivered equally poignant messages that, in retrospect, are likely to mark a monumental transition of eras in American history, just like Salinger’s novel.
Francis made thousands of small gestures toward a shift of American consciousness during his September visit. One of these measures was a meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who refused to issue legal marriage licenses to gay couples in her community because of her religious beliefs. Although Christian conservative politicians and publications spun the audience as an endorsement of Davis, the subsequent explanation from the Vatican explicitly stated the encounter "should not be considered a form of support of her position."
A few hours later, it would later be revealed, the pope brought this same fellowship to a longer, at first unpublicized, meeting with his gay former student, Yayo Grassi, and his partner.
Both are examples of how Pope Francis consistently engages folks with whom he may philosophically disagree. And that brings us back to Salinger, as a cynical recluse who stands in contrast.
The Catcher in the Rye was a product of World War II created after Salinger, a member of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division, not only participated in the D-Day invasion, but also fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Between horrors, Salinger wrote a first draft of Catcher, filtering the lunacy all around him into the story of a teenage boy, Holden Caulfield, who wanders New York City’s battlefields, disgusted with the moral absurdity of his environment. Caulfield must negotiate a deep sense of disconnection and loss, the same feelings Salinger grappled with upon the real battlefields of Europe, where approximately 90 percent of his division was killed in combat.
Salinger beat horrible odds and became one of the first soldiers to liberate Nazi concentration camps like Kaufering IV. Piles of dead bodies, along with living corpses left behind by the fleeing Nazis, stung Salinger, who noted repeatedly throughout his life, “You never forget the smell of burning flesh.” He was a firsthand witness of mankind at its worst: degradation of fellow humans; refusal to acknowledge the humanity of others; belief in the superiority of one's race and creed and ideology; genocide; and ruthless fighting for resources. This was the world in 1945, after 80 years of unfettered industrial capitalism, a world Salinger completely disengaged from after the war.
During his visit to America, Pope Francis engaged the same moral challenges and mindsets of Salinger’s post-WWII era. Via multiple speeches and Masses, the pope kindly pointed out that a dwindling morality—a byproduct of rampant materialism—has created tremendous human suffering, immigration crises and global climate change. Before the United Nations, the pope stated, “The poorest are those who suffer most, for three reasons: They are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded, and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment.”
Francis reminded world leaders to practice more human compassion, compromise more, cooperate, practice the Golden Rule, and remember that you are your brother’s keeper. These powerfully simple ideas, he noted, cross all religions and national borders, and hold solutions to the 21st century’s greatest problems. “From every people, culture and religion, let us join forces,” he urged.
In a culture of dwindling unity, the pope's presence in America was a refreshing and unfamiliar joy, a spiritual uplift that even brought the gruff Senator John Boehner to tears.
A new era of spirituality is now a necessity for America, and Pope Francis leads by example toward this frontier. He lives simply, drives a small Fiat car, rejects the “rock star” ego and sleeps on a plain bed. We witnessed the pope emitting an aura of optimism and faith, finding goodness in criminals, Kim Davis and the most vitriolic members of Congress, while giving audience to the smallest child with the same respect as a captain of industry. While blessing prisoners at Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility, Pope Francis noted that “all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation." I believe it's not going too far to label the leader as a spiritual hero who thrusts forward with compassionate words and acts.
So, too, is Caulfield our spiritual hero. He is Salinger’s lucid voice, a voice that speaks intimately and candidly with the reader, a voice that shares his audiences’ pain and points out obvious hypocrisies that so many “phonies” willfully ignore. Yet he's also a voice of cynicism, exclusiveness and disengagement.
Could Francis be a clarifier at a critical historical juncture? A harbinger of the end of a materialistic era and the beginning of a neo-spiritual era? By my reading, he's a modern-day catcher in the rye, with a potentially greater impact upon the American conscience.