It’s an exciting time for many in this country, with the first visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. Some 70 million U.S. Catholics notwithstanding, it’s remarkable to see and to feel the excitement generated by this pope. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been mesmerized by the rock star quality of this man and, more notably, of his message about taking care of each other and the planet. It’s a moment to savor, this feel-good visit from someone who has the capacity to generate an upbeat and hopeful message; not many could do it. But it also creates a disconnect for us, as we cheer the messenger while simultaneously spurning the message.
Like many, I have watched copious news coverage of the papal visit, out of interest and curiosity. I’m both interested in hearing the topics that Francis has chosen to highlight and curious about our collective and positive reaction to him and “the higher Chief” to whom Francis reports. But I wonder about the gap that exists there, one that Francis has referenced on several occasions in his talks here. That distance between the emotional uplift of this man’s visit and the reality of our daily actions is wide, and I am confounded by that space.
How is it possible that we can be so emotionally and spiritually attuned to the lessons Francis brings, while at the same time living our lives deaf to our own opportunities to respond? Matters of climate and environment, poverty and hunger, stewardship and servanthood have seemingly captivated the pope’s audiences around the world- now including the U.S.- at a time when the debate rhetoric around such issues has never been more polarized and heated. And we are all the same in this spiritual conundrum that afflicts us between our feeling and our doing.
Catholics from Latin America are especially in love with Francis, for he is “of them” and speaks to Latin Americans in their own language, a connection which is treasured. From country to country Francis is welcomed by heads of state who cherish the moments of being in the presence of the pope and his hopeful message, only to return all-too-frequently to their autocratic regimes of favoritism, exclusion and oppression. Even in the rural reaches, professors of the faith who hold a very proprietary view of Francis and his humble servanthood will too often seek to take advantage of opportunities for gain over good character. We are seemingly infected with the virus of selfhood.
In Europe, the pontiff is received upon red carpets and with gifts of expressive love by leaders who, in some cases, have slammed shut the doors of receptive love on the very homeless about whom the pope continually reminds us. Particularly on the European continent, we are afflicted with the disease of short memory about dispossession and relocation.
In the U.S., political leaders have clamored to be among those in audience with the pope; few were absent as Francis addressed Congress. Yet some of these eager faces will reflect a far different countenance in the days to come as the country weighs national interests of short-term corporate health against interests of long-term personal, national and global well-being, of political postures versus strength of character, of support for military revolutions in contrast to Francis’ “revolution of tenderness and love.” Here, we are seemingly diseased through our affluence and power.
The observations and questions posed here are not intended to be accusatory or pejorative to anyone other than perhaps myself. To be sure, we are complex beings with internally competing motives that shape us day by day, even hour-by-hour. We are human, imperfect by definition. We cannot be perfectly consistent because we live in dynamic surroundings, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual. We are subject to awesome and unexpected changes to our lives, alterations which can be both unanticipated and unexplainable. Our world is transforming every day, in ways seen and unseen to most of us.
But almost despite those realities, Pope Francis has been able to reach out to the world with a message that has caught us off-guard but which is full of possibilities. The receptivity to that message does not depend entirely in the voice of the deliverer, but in the hearts and minds of the rest of us. Francis has asked us to be our best selves. Consistency between that ideal and our daily actions is entirely within our command. Deep down, that’s why we’re so glad the pope is here, sharing his universal words of humility and hope, and why we long to embrace both him and his message….