At Christmas in 1941, new Roman Catholic convert Avery Dulles was in his first days as a civilian U.S. Navy worker, having just quit Harvard Law School. He would receive an officer's commission that eventually led to battles in the Mediterranean and a bout with polio.
Philip Hannan was a young priest, celebrating Christmas Mass in Baltimore before volunteering as an Army chaplain. While serving with paratroopers in Europe, he narrowly escaped from German bombings twice.
G. Thompson Brown, a Davidson College student, took a holiday break with other children of missionaries. But it was an anxious Christmas, because Japanese troops had just put his parents under house arrest in China. After the Army swore him in on graduation day, 1942, he went to work deciphering enemy codes.
Lyle Schaller was on break from the University of Wisconsin. In his hometown of Lime Ridge, Wis., the preachers and populace aggressively professed patriotism, partly because most were of German descent. Schaller soon left school to enlist, and taught aerial gunnery at a base in western Texas.
All four were to become Christian patriarchs. Dulles, now 83, was named this year as the first U.S. theologian in the College of Cardinals. Hannan, 88, was the longtime Catholic archbishop of New Orleans. Brown, 80, was a noted missionary to South Korea and head of a Presbyterian foreign mission board. And Schaller, 78, became a valued consultant to thousands of troubled Protestant congregations.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, these clergymen from the so-called "greatest generation" that won World War II are wondering if America still has the same kind of spiritual strength it drew upon during the somber Christmas season that followed Pearl Harbor.
Schaller, a Methodist living in Naperville, Ill., acerbically compares the pop culture priorities of Americans then and now:
"Two words. In 1941, sacrifice. In 2001, shop."
Christmas 2001 features pleadings to buy and boost the economy, he explains, even though times are vastly better than in 1941. Back then, everyone preached working for the common good. Schaller recalls joining with schoolmates to scavenge the countryside for scrap metal before they went off to war.
And death was different then, Schaller says. "We expected huge numbers of casualties in World War II," while today's American culture ignores or postpones death, just as it minimizes it on the battlefield.
Hannan wonders whether today's America is spiritually equipped for a long, hard journey.
"I don't think right now people are set for a long-term, enervating, difficult war," he says. "They don't have enough religious strength to see them through. This is what I fear."
He points to a lesson learned while liberating the prison camp at Woebbelin, Germany. Hannan had the grisly duty of emptying the men's unit, where only corpses remained. Yet in an adjoining compound, 800 women were still alive. When he asked why, the survivors said it was because a Polish woman had fashioned makeshift rosary beads out of bread and led devotionals every night.
"We prayed for each other and for the end of the war, and we lived on hope," Hannan was told.
The Rev. Duke McCall, 87, who was the longtime president of Kentucky's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is convinced that the spiritual stirrings ran far deeper in December 1941, despite the prominent worship services this fall at the National Cathedral and elsewhere.
"We are singing 'God Bless America' more often, but we're singing it more as a pep song than a prayer," he says.
Dulles, somewhat more optimistic, would like to think that America has shifted away from the "carefree hedonism" of the 1990s toward "a deeper sense of responsibility."
Wartime brings a "sense of dependence upon something higher," though he cautions "it's really uncertain at this point how long this will last."
During World War II, the churches were busier than they had been during the Great Depression. And when peace was finally won, the religious upsurge continued -- finally peaking in the 1950s -- as many returning veterans became clergy.
Brown, the career missionary, was among them. At Davidson, he had planned on a secular career in the foreign service. But he had ample time to rethink things while in India awaiting Army reassignment.
"Out of the war experience I came to feel I had a call," he says. "It was no great emotional experience, just a feeling, a tug. This is something that needed to be done. And the need was overwhelming. China was just a wreck."
The plan for missionary work in China was later barred by the Communist takeover, however, so he landed in Korea.
Brown hopes Americans will replicate the spiritual expansion of World War II and its aftermath, and that Christians will make a massive push to help poor people overseas, as they have before. But he worries that, unlike 1941, U.S. churches today are weakened, shoved to the sidelines of society and divided internally over basic beliefs.
Schaller agrees that, in 1941, U.S. Christians were overwhelmingly united in belief about Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament, even though then they were more divided along denominational lines.
Cardinal Dulles, who will be celebrating Christmas Mass in South Orange, N.J., says he plans to preach the old-time religion:
People can't achieve salvation on their own so "it's Christ the savior who is born. ... I don't think we are free to ignore the gift of God."
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