We’ve run road races, cycled Louisville, watched rubber ducks float down the Ohio River. The turtles, rats and great balloons have run their races and children have marched in parades and ridden stick horses to their hearts’ content.
And now it’s nearly time for the big race — the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
It’s a funny thing we do — getting so excited over a two-minute horse race. Few of us own a horse or even place significant bets on the Derby.
Though just about everyone can agree that the beauty of the thoroughbreds is worth our admiration.
For most of us, the fun of Derby is less about the horses and the betting and more about what Pope Francis refers to as “conviviality” — a sharing of life.
Addressing thousands of faithful in St. Peter’s Square in November of 2015, Pope Francis said conviviality involves sharing the “goods of life” and being “happy to do so.”
And that’s just what Louisville and the commonwealth of Kentucky do during Derby season. We offer hospitality to tens of thousands of revelers during Derby week itself. And in the run-up to the race, during the Kentucky Derby Festival, we get outside and enjoy one another.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of delighting in our shared lives — to see a good time as something we ought to do. But it’s nevertheless important.
Way back in 1973 — the year the Triple Crown winner Secretariat set a new track record — a Passionist priest serving as pastor of St. Agnes Church at the time went so far as to write a prayer for the Derby season. It’s not a buzz-killing pontification; it’s a prayer of encouragement that points out the value of delighting in the festivities.
Father Kent Pieper’s prayer goes like this:
“May the significance of this week show a community’s efforts to reach beyond the frontiers of our city to bring joy and peace to a disturbed and troubled world.
“May the joy, the merriment, the love of our hearts be a sign to all the world that you take delight in your children, that no man is an island and we need one another very much.
“Make our city your playground this week and bless the flowers and trees, its homes and people, its avenues and streets.”
Images of derbies past spring to mind — Louisville’s neatly trimmed avenues, lined with budding perrennials and colorful early annuals; delicate hats bobbing above laughing carefree summer dresses accompanied by striped seersucker suits; bourbon sloshing in ice-cold silver julep cups.
These things add to the fun, but they’re not essential. What is important is being with and welcoming people to the festivities.
Just a few days ago, Pope Francis celebrated the 150th anniversary of a movement called Catholic Action. During his talk, he explained that the vocation of a layperson is to live a holy life through one’s daily activities, adopting “welcome and dialogue as the style with which you make others your neighbors.”
Reveling in Derby — provided one doesn’t overindulge — is an opportunity to welcome your neighbor and find authentic fraternity. That’s a sure bet!