In the United States, you work for the future. In Europe, you live with the past.

In Italy, the omnipresence of the Church is a constant reminder of the past. Fewer than 20 percent of Italians may go to Mass on Sunday, but they cannot escape the Catholic presence that has drenched their land with memories for 20 centuries. 

The country sags under the weight of statues memorializing the past, and it carries its history like a rucksack filled with stones it can never put down.

In Europe, the past weighs heavily even when apparently invisible, as in the rebuilt cities of Cologne and Berlin that were flattened by the bombardments of World War II. The new invokes its rubbled history.

This past is filled with trauma. It is sobering to realize that we who are ethnically European are here today because our ancestors were survivors. 

We are here because our ancestors survived the plague that killed one-third of Europe, survived the many brutal wars that wracked the region, survived the starvation and disease that accompanied those wars. 

We are here because our maternal ancestors survived childbirths and their children survived the charnel house that was early childhood. Our genes traversed a minefield of disasters in order to become us today.

We Americans rarely think such thoughts. We are famously ahistorical. We don’t know our own history well, much less anybody else’s. This allows us many opportunities to repeat our mistakes. 

The attraction of America is not its past, however. It is its undimming promise of a better future. No matter who we are or where we come from, we can succeed to make a life here. 

That very promise is what drew our ancestors from Italy and Germany, from England and Ireland, from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

But there comes a time — even for Americans — when our steps slow and the future grows more obviously finite. Then we may wonder about our own past and how we got here. 

For some, this means genetic testing, with such services growing rapidly in popularity. For others, there is genealogical research, putting names and dates to our forebears.

Of course, this being America, many of us are a jumble. My lineage is European mutt, but my surname is Swedish, and it is the Swedish part of my heritage that has always caught my imagination. So after many decades, I took my first trip to Sweden to search out where I came from: the soil on which my ancestors trod, the soil that holds my family’s bones.

Sweden lost 20 percent of its population to emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As economic and agrarian cycles of boom and bust whipsawed the rural populations, desperately ambitious men and women took their savings and bought boat tickets to America.

My search first led me to read death certificates and old newspaper headlines about a great-grandfather I never knew who left a farm in southern Sweden at a time when there had been a devastating drought. 

He shed a family past of hard farm work in rocky, difficult soil, and became a bricklayer in Minnesota. He bought a house, had a family, and was a success by any material measure.

But 147 years after he left that farm, I was standing on its very soil during another time of drought. I was looking at the house he had grown up in and talking to the man who now owned it as his cows mooed at us impatiently.

The farmhouse was probably as old as our country. A few yards away was a farmhouse almost 200 years older. The graves of my ancestors have been dug up and replaced with other bodies, but the Lutheran church where they worshipped still stands a few miles away.

There was something remarkable in visiting this hardscrabble farm that my grandfather and my father had never seen, but that launched my great-grandfather on his quest for a different future.

When I see the Salvadorans and the Hondurans, the Mexicans and the Haitians, the Eritreans and the Nigerians, who now are pursuing their quests for a different future, I am in awe of their courage. For it is courageous almost to the point of foolhardiness to leave one’s home, one’s family, one’s village, one’s friends, in order to pursue a different life. 

As an immigrant, you may always be an outsider. You may always speak with an accent. You may always dream of a home you cannot go back to.

But your courage is for your children, and your children’s children. And one day the child of your grandchild may stand on the soil you once left, and feel in a strange and mystical way as if he had come home.


Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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