A few days ago, I heard a talk Bishop Robert Barron gave to the seminarians of Philadelphia. He told the graced story of the Word on Fire apostolate and gleaned from it some guiding principles for proclaiming the Gospel through the means of modern media. One evocative principle caught my ear. The Bishop exhorted his audience with a “Chicago principle”: “make no small plans—they have no power to stir men’s hearts.” Bishop Barron was paraphrasing a saying (with disputed origins) from the American architect, Daniel Burnham. The whole of it goes like this:
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.
Burnham was one of the men responsible for the 1909 Plan of Chicago that began shaping and still influences the grand modern city we know today. He was a key figure in promoting the city’s beautiful parks and in making the lakefront available to all citizens. He also set forth a vision for Chicago to be a tall, elegant, and spacious city. Burnham made big plans and left behind a robust legacy. He also accurately predicted that his “sons and grandsons” in architecture would accomplish staggering things. The Windy City has grown beyond what anyone could have imagined a century ago, becoming a magnificent monument to human ingenuity.
Chicago is my kind of town. There’s great culture and amazing food. In it are many gorgeous churches and renowned universities. It has many parks, wide streets, and friendly Midwesterners. The city has a lot going for it as a place where human flourishing can happen. However, Chicago, just like every grand mortal city, just like each of us mortals, is passing away. And there are several signs of that inevitable decay. Chicago has a long history of corrupt governance. It has among the highest crime rates in the nation. It is home to several gangs and violent factions. So it’s like any other fallen human city—there is much good, but alas also much evil. The wheat and the chaff coexist.
There is another city, however, that is all order and beauty. The city planner knows and executes his design flawlessly. He makes everything in the city work for the common good of its citizens and anticipates their every need. And these citizens have the privilege of being coworkers with the architect, of freely and creatively building up his city. We too have been invited to partake in this awesome enterprise. We need simply get to know the design and way of life of this city, to let it stir our hearts and our blood. We just have to trust the architect, work under his direction, and hope for the realization of his city. Then, we will enjoy its never-ending life. After all, God makes no little plans.
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