by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
Sometimes God places seemingly unrelated observations in your head that beg for reflection on whether they are related. That happened to me with bridges.
A reference to a letter by Saint Basil the Great first caught my attention. Basil was bishop of Ceasarea, in modern day Turkey, from 370 to 379. Basil is known as great defender against heresy, but he was also prolific letter writer very involved in the life of his community. In one of these letters Basil urges the provincial governor to build a much needed bridge.
Even in the early years of the church, therefore, we have a case of a member of the clergy, a bishop no less, urging a representative of the state to engage in a task for the common good. Saint Basil apparently recognized that the duty of a Christian went beyond personal charity for the poor. It also encompassed working for what the community or government could do for the good of all.
Jump ahead 1600 years. I saw a story about a Catholic priest in India beaten by police while peacefully protesting delays in the construction of a bridge.
In 2007, Catholic diocesan officials in the Kerala area of India expressed concern about repeated delays in the construction of important bridge connecting two coastal communities hit by the 2004 tsunami. Father Father Edward Puthanpurackal and members of the Catholic Youth Movement participated in a peaceful protest by lying on the road to the bridge, a form of nonviolent action developed by Mohandas Gandhi. Police then attacked and beat the protestors. News stories reported that the Deputy Superintendent of Police himself beat Father Edward. The diocese and other Catholic leaders condemned the attacks and renewed calls for completion of the bridge.
I then came across another unexpected reference to bridges when reading about English Catholicism before the Reformation. At that time, wills and testaments were primarily religious acts. A person executed a will to set himself right before God. It was common, therefore, for people to leave bequests for prayers and acts of mercy to be performed by executors or specified individuals. Many of these wills also left money for the building and maintaining of bridges. Historians point out that these bequests were not secular gifts, like those of today’s philanthropists, but were religious acts motivated by God’s call to care for the community.
Government primarily funded the construction of bridges. The church, however, was a supporter of bridge building as a public good and essential to public safety. The famous London Bridge, which provided safer passage to pilgrims going to Canterbury, may never have been completed without direct and indirect church support. In fact, even its main architect was a priest.
The Christian symbolism of bridges is easily apparent. Christ is a bridge to the Father. Bishops and the pope are called “pontiffs,” which literally means “bridge-builder.” What struck me about the similarities between Saint Basil in fourth century Asia Minor, a twenty-first century Indian priest, and Catholics in medieval England was not symbolism. Rather, the striking feature of these three events in church history is how they reflect an understanding that our Christian obligation to others is not just about private charity. Being Christian also means having a commitment to the common good, which the church defines as those social conditions that allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. These Christians recognized that bridges, like a just economy, education, security, and health care, are part of the common good to which Christians are called to provide for all.