Eternity is calling Bruce Springsteen, and it’s drawing him back to his childhood parish church, whose steeple cast a long shadow over his working-class upbringing and whose liturgies echo in nearly every song he’s written since then.
For Springsteen, the Catholic Church stands at the “origins of his dreams and his beliefs”, as one appreciative essayist has written. Now, it seems, the Boss is poised to return to those origins, to walk the long walk home.
That was the most interesting bit from a long interview with Springsteen that recently appeared in the Times of London. The interviewer apparently spent most of his time talking politics, and the Boss obliged with some sensible remarks – more sensible, at any rate, than most pop stars’ political musings.
He predicted that Donald Trump would be re-elected unless the Democrats find a nominee “who can speak some of the same language” as the President when it comes to working-class concerns. As it is, Springsteen said, “I don’t see anyone out there at the moment” in a Democratic Party that has transformed itself into a vehicle for the strange dreams and anxieties of the gentry Left: plastic straws and intersectionality, and all that.
But the Boss was quick to dash hopes that he might throw his hat in the 2020 ring. “I’d be terrible,” he said. No, these days Springsteen is spending more time with ghosts. “I enjoy visiting the spirits of my father and [E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons], and my friends and family, which I do on stage each night.” The most haunting presence of all: the Catholic church in Freehold, New Jersey, where as a boy he witnessed “an eternal parade of baptisms, weddings and funerals” (as he recounted in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run).
He’s now regularly stopping by that church in Freehold where he served as an altar boy, per the Times. This, even though “over the years he has railed against his strict Catholic upbringing” and notwithstanding the “harsh treatment meted out by nuns” at his Catholic elementary school.
Springsteen is nearly 70. “You get more spiritual as you grow older,” he said. “You’re closer to the other world, so maybe that has something to do with it … I do still find myself drawn to the Catholic Church. I visit my small church quite often … I continue to feel the Catholic Church’s imprint on me rather strongly.” That’s putting it mildly; indeed, entire books have been written about the Catholic sensibility that infuses Springsteen’s work, going back to his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
Some conservative Catholics bristle at the notion that the Boss belongs in the American Catholic literary and musical canon. Springsteen supports abortion and gay marriage, the scolds harrumph. He bankrolled Obama’s campaigns. He’s assailed the Church’s moral teaching. All of which is true, and how I wish it were otherwise. But none of it erases the Catholic mark on Springsteen’s significant lyrical achievements.
After all, Springsteen wrote perhaps the most explicitly Marian verses in all of American popular music. I’m speaking, of course, of The Rising, his 9/11 ballad that tells of a firefighter climbing one of the burning towers of the World Trade Center. “I was wearin’ the cross of my calling,” Springsteen’s doomed first responder says. And later: “I see you, Mary, in the garden / In the garden of a thousand sighs … / May I feel your arms around me / May I feel your blood mix with mine.”
The 9/11 attacks serve as a reenactment, at once, of Gethsemane and Calvary, with the Mother of God pointing a hero to the Cross: Springsteen’s our man – whether he likes or it not.
“Do you go to Confession?” the Times asks him at one point. “No, I haven’t done that in quite a while.” The dogmatic side of the Church isn’t for him, he insists, and he still isn’t sure whether he’s drawn to the parish by faith or mere nostalgia.
This Advent, say a prayer that Springsteen finds his way to one of the confessionals at his hometown church, where infinite and total absolution await all comers, even megastars. And may “God have mercy on the man / Who doubts what he’s sure of.”
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the forthcoming memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)
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