I usually select a recent phrase from Pope Francis as the basis for my reflection in this column. This month, I am choosing 4 different “scenes”, you could say, from the pope’s recently completed trip to Mexico. His schedule was jam-packed with events but the following four struck me deeply. I will describe them, my experiencing of them, and suggest what they mean for my life. It is my hope that you can find similar things in these vignettes for your life.
Meeting with Patriarch Kirill at the Havana airport, February 12, 2016:
This meeting had long been desired for many years between the pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches of the east. Meetings were often negotiated, scheduled, yet they never materialized. Many commentators suggested that this was because the papacy set stringent stipulations for meeting. Pope Francis did not set stipulations. He just basically let the patriarch know that he would meet with him anywhere at any time, your place or mine. Watching PF as he greeted the patriarch was striking: arms broadly extended like he was meeting a long-lost brother, and even saying “Brother! At long last!” I read that the first words from the pope’s mouth, once they were in private talks, was to ask the patriarch how his flight was from Moscow. Interesting, he starts a conversation with this man that has long been desired almost like we when we talk with a stranger by first commenting on the weather. He found the common ground to set the stage and relax his conversation partner. There was no footage of the private meeting, only when the two came out to sign the joint declaration and to give statements to the journalists. The pope’s body language was to stand humbly, his upper body slightly bent, hands straight down at his side, next to the patriarch, a proud looking man in full regalia of his office, complete with headgear with a cross coming straight off the top of his he. Other than his white cassock and his usual pectoral cross, PF’s body language had nothing of “I am the pope!” in it. After I had just seen this footage, I continued with some translation work of the pope’s writings from when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires that I am doing for a friend. Here are his words on the subject of listening that I translated that I found so appropriate for what I had just watched:
“Listening means much more than hearing. Hearing concerns the scope of information. Listening, instead, refers to that of communication, to that particular propensity to closeness with others without which there cannot be a true encounter. Listening allows us to assume the right attitude and to find the words more suitable to leave the tranquil state of spectator”
Based what I had watched of this meeting, PF walks his talk. I would imagine Patriarch Kirill felt listened to indeed.
In this climate of increasingly polarized national and church conversations, we need to learn lessons from Pope Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill. Here are my takeaways: to listen, I need to get “me” and what I want out of the conversation; I need to be ready to listen wherever and whenever the other person is ready to talk; I must learn to put that other person at ease with my words and my body language; there is no place for ego in true listening.
Visit to the “Federico Gomez” Children’s Hospital, Sunday, February 14, 2016:
This hospital near Mexico City has around 300 beds for children suffering from all kinds of serious illnesses. In this event, which moved me intensely, Pope Francis met with some of the 2700 staff and about 50 or so very sick children, cancer patients among them. He administered what I read described as “kindness therapy”, bending over the mostly wheel-chair bound children, kissing their cheeks and caressing their hands. With one little girl, whose bald head suggested was a cancer patient, he spent several minutes with his forehead touching hers, talking with her. The kids were giving him hand-drawn Valentines. You didn’t need to know Spanish to understand what he was saying as he invariably took the drawing of pink hearts and made gestures that indicated to me he was saying to the child, “You drew this for me?” as if he were surprised and delighted to receive it. I am sure he was. One older girl sang a beautiful version of Ave Maria, her voice slightly quavering, he listening with beaming smile. He moved from wheel chair to wheel chair greeting each child like he or she were the only person in the room for him at that moment. His schedule for this trip was tight with events but there was the sense he had all the time in the world. It was interesting to watch his staff take him by the arm or catch his sleeve to point him in the next direction. By the time he was done, it was very obvious that his back was hurting him. He has a history of sciatica. I know what that feels like as I suffered from it also. Bending at the angle he was after a while is very painful. He was very obviously doing what he describes as “bending down”, “abasing oneself”, as he said God did in the action of taking human flesh in Jesus. This is what Jesus does, he says, and we are called to do the same. There are those who say this is all just a bunch of skillful papal PR. There is no way you can fake what I was seeing.
Yet as I watched him, I was struck by not only his total attention and tenderness with these kids….he even helped a nurse administer some medicine…but his attitude. He is never upset that his aids take charge of what he is to do. He remains very docile to their directions. It is amazing to see when you know that he is the most prominent world leader today. He showed total ease with these sick kids. That is not easy for someone who does not work day in and day out with the sick. I worked in the healthcare setting. It is something that takes quite a bit of time to learn to do as well as he was doing it. I know from what he has said in previous interviews and comments that seeing sick and suffering children is very painful for him. Here is what he says: “Whenever I see a sick and suffering child, I ask God, ‘Why them and not me?’”. He says he hasn’t yet gotten God’s answer but feels sure that God sees him in that moment and he says that has to be enough for him.
The “takeaways” are obvious for me from watching this event, but they are not easy to personally assimilate: I must learn to “bend down” to help those who suffer and are in need; I must be docile to the directions in which God is pointing me. As I said, it isn’t easy. None of what this man shows us to do and what he speaks to is not easy to assimilate. But, he is only mimicking what his “boss” has done and is doing.
Meeting with Youth, at Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.:
This venue was packed with thousands of young Mexicans. The event was noisy, colorful and very Mexican with oversized displays of religious piety typical of the Mexican culture and lots of music. It is typical at these kinds of venues for the pope to listen to 3 or 4 people speak of their lives and ask him questions which he then answers. He usually knows what the questions are beforehand, but he listens carefully and takes notes as they speak. He spoke from his prepared text at this event, but he has often set it aside to offer completely off-the-cuff at others. Although sticking to his prepared remarks, he peppered what he said with spontaneous remarks that offered these kids hope and encouragement in their lives in this drug lord infested part of Mexico. It is what he did at the end, much reported on in the media,that struck me. As he left the stage, as he often does, he went to the area in front of the barricades to greet those folks sitting in wheel chairs. As he made his way down the line, you see in the video an arm snake out of the crowd pushed up against the other side of the barricade and yank the white short shoulder cape he wears over his cassock. In doing so, she….I saw in her hand a pink covered cell phone…knocked him off his balance and he fell forward almost collapsing onto a very disabled young man right in front of him. His aids helped him gain his balance to have this same person immediately again yank on his cape. I am guessing she wanted a “selfie” with him as the cell phone was again visible. This time he was almost laying on the wheel-chair bound person, literally cradling this person in his arms resting on the arms of the wheel-chair. As he was helped back up, he was very visibly livid and shouting at the young woman who did this. The media reported he said: “Don’t be selfish! Don’t be selfish!”. I am sure my reaction would have had some expletives! It was what he did next that surprised me. Instead of stomping off in anger, he defused the situation by talking a bit with her and those around her and then he gave them all rosaries.
The obvious takeaway from this is to know that this very human pope is, indeed, very human, and even gets ticked off enough to lose his temper visibly and not hesitating to do so in public. It’s ok to be this human and we all do it but he showed us another way to go through these situations: make amends, defuse them. Again, not easy for me to do. How about you?
Encounter and Mass at the border at Juarez, Wednesday, February 17, 2016:
This encounter to me was quite “iconic” of Francis’ message and very daring. It had been talked about for weeks that he wanted to, as Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a close friend and ”spiritual son” of Pope Francis, said on his Facebook page, “touch the border fence with his hand”. In watching this event, the popemobile drove for several miles through vast crowds growing denser the closer he got to the stadium where he was to hold Mass. It went back and forth through the crowds in front of it and then drove into the stadium itself, jam packed in the stands and with a crowd in the center field. He was driven around the track on the edge of the field and then back out of the stadium. My thought at this point was “Here we go….he is headed to the border fence!”. Not quite, but close. The drive outside took him to an area where there were no crowds. He got out of the popemobile with a bishop and his chief of security to walk over to the base of what looked to me like a newly constructed cement ramp.
Waiting there was a young woman with flowers in her arms. The pope, the bishop and the young woman went up the ramp decorated with luminaria and flowers on either side to the top platform overlooking the Rio Grande River and the border fence clearly visible across the river. At the top was a large black cross decorated with some typical Mexican flower designs on both elements with a white silhouette at the crossing point of Mary on a donkey, baby in arms, with Joseph leading, all in white, the iconic image of flight from oppression. He prayed for some moments at the foot of this cross and then looked out over the river. Down below on both sides of the river one could see border patrol security vehicles lining the river. I thought, “All this for one elderly man who might step out of line??” After praying, blessing the large cross and laying the flowers at the foot, he then was turned by the bishop who indicated the 50,000 people gathered on the US side. I later read this included several bishops, clergy and religious involved in efforts that help immigrants who have crossed illegally. Present also were illegal immigrants. He blessed this crowd and then turned to bless the three smaller crosses leaning against the railing on the platform. I later read these crosses are in remembrance of those who have died crossing the river.
It was very clear from his action, even though it was not what his heart desired, what his message was and consistently always is: we go to the borders, we help those who are in desperate need as most of those who cross illegally are, we must be there for the outcasts. These people are for the most part not the “rapist and criminals” a certain presidential candidate calls them. They are fleeing severe violence and oppression in their home countries to the south. The pope’s very visible presence to these people, standing up on that platform, showed them he understands and he is “near, close” as he frequently says.
What are my takeaways? Get out of my comfort zone, take a stand. On the flight from Rome to Mexico, a Latino reporter, himself a migrant child who shined shoes to make money and son of a single mother, very active in his home parish, asked PF what he had to say to inspire other lay people to begin to get out and do things. The pope’s reply was “Get out of your cave”. Inez Martin, of Latino heritage herself and who writes for CruxNow, says that is a very Spanish phrase that means exactly to get out of one’s comfort zone. It means taking a stand at times where you can, just as PF was doing standing at the border, not where he really wanted to be, but where circumstances allowed him to be, to make a plea for those who so desperately need someone to stand up for them.
None of what Pope Francis asks us to do is going to be easy. Our world is such today that “easy fixes” are far and few between. I am not comfortable doing as he asks and often fail at doing these things. But I do as he also says, “When you fall down, get back up right away”. This man, no longer young and in not so great physical condition, is a model for us all. Why are we not moved by what he does? In asking ourselves this, we may find the courage to move forward. Our Church, our world, so desperately needs all of us to resonant to the “Francis effect”.