On the Character of a Nation


Published January 16, 2024

First Things

Eulogies are curious things. Too many, too often, are long, rambling, weepy, and meaningful only to the relatively few who liked the deceased enough to show up for the wake or funeral. Death is a drag. It’s also universal and inescapable, which is why we fear it, and avoid even thinking too deeply about it for as long as we can. Yet, on occasion, a eulogy can capture the inner quality of a man, and in doing so, place the character of his nation in the docket for judgment.

Joseph F. Mahoney Jr. died on Christmas Eve. He was a friend. I delivered his eulogy, and I share it here for reasons that will become clear at the end.

Joe Mahoney was a good and just man. Those words are plain and simple; they sound like modest applause. But they’re the opposite. In the biblical vocabulary, those two words—good and just—are enormous. They have weight. The Gospel of Matthew describes the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus with one adjective: He was a just man. There’s no greater praise.

As his obituary says, Joe was, in every sense, a “man for others”—demanding of himself while encouraging those around him; a natural leader who brought out the best in his colleagues; a man of warm heart, unselfish spirit, and strong Christian witness; generous with his many friends, and passionately committed to his wife Gail and their eight children. He had a long and distinguished professional career, because he never gave less than his best to anything he did. He never backed away from doing the hard thing, if it was the right thing to do. And he had a natural instinct for courage, a quality that his service in the Marine Corps, and his combat tour as a company commander on Vietnam’s DMZ, 1967-68, perfected.

But Joe’s career, and even his deep pride in being a Marine, were never at the heart of the man. His heart lay elsewhere. He loved reading the Word of God. And he didn’t just read it. He treasured it, believed it, and sought to conform his life to it. He was active in prison ministry, and he and Gail shared a zeal for supporting orphans of the Vietnam War, the dignity and rights of the unborn child, the importance of Catholic education, and other Christian charities and apostolic work. Joe’s Catholic faith and his love for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist were central to his life. They shaped his mind, his heart, and his engagement with the world. 

The author J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in one of his private letters that “the one great thing to love on earth [is] the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that.” I don’t think Joe ever read those words, but he didn’t need to. He lived them.

Now I could stop right there because what I’ve said is true, and Joe had little patience with anything that sounded like flattery or hagiography. But I want to offer three other simple thoughts.

Here’s the first. Being male is a matter of biology. Becoming a man is learned and earned. We live in a culture that’s forgotten the difference. Which is why we now have too few men who are real fathers, and too many males who never really grow up. As I noted above, Joe was a “man for others.” His life was the evidence. He protected and provided for the people he loved and the people who depended on him. He was a man’s man.  

Like a lot of guys, Joe had an interest in history because it’s a great teacher. And one of history’s lessons is that the world changes all the time. But human nature doesn’t. Nine hundred years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux described the virtues of a Christian knight as piety, humility, courage, fraternal love, fidelity, and obedience—obedience to God, and obedience to the needs of others. Obedience is vital for a man, because he can’t lead well until he first learns the self-discipline of following well. For Bernard, the Christian knight was part monk and part soldier; a man of prayer and a man of action. Bernard also thought that celibacy was essential. Joe obviously missed the boat on that one. But in every other category, Joe got an A. He had the soul of a Christian knight.

Here’s my second thought. The best gift a man can give his children is to love their mother, and Joe loved Gail with all his heart. You couldn’t really know and understand Joe without also knowing and understanding Gail. Each was a remarkable person. Each brought separate gifts to their marriage. But they were inseparably one in the life and family they shared. They were married for fifty-eight years and our closest friends for forty-nine of them, and they always will be. But they were also our tutors in living a marriage and raising a family faithfully, happily, and well.

Here’s my third and final thought. And it’s very simple. Mothers shape the early lives of their sons with an unconditional love. Wives shape their husbands with the reality of what a mature love means—its demands, and also its beauty. But in the end, men are made better men by other, better men. For me, and for so many other men who knew him, Joe Mahoney was that other, better man. And I’ll always be grateful.

So much for the eulogy. Here’s why I share it. Joe Mahoney loved this country. Like so many other good men, he believed in, and fought for, and sustained by the witness of his life his country’s best ideals. 

I just wonder if the nation we’ve become, and its character, deserved him.


Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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