Now that Pope Francis has completed his historic visit to the United States, it’s time to sit back and reflect.
As I watched television coverage of the Holy Father’s motorcade proceeding along Fifth Avenue, I couldn’t help wondering how this very humble man felt about the hoopla surrounding his visit to the United States. What did he think when he saw a 180 foot mural of his likeness towering above Fifth Avenue? How did he feel when someone in New York handed him a stuffed Pope Francis doll, and someone in Philadelphia thrust an infant wearing a papal mitre at him? How does a simple man react to such an overwhelming outpouring of admiration? It was, after all, a bit effusive and over-the-top.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Pope Francis and greatly admire his spirituality and humility. Jorge Bergoglio is a “regular guy” who travels in a Fiat, pays his own hotel bills in person, rejects the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace (because, as he says, he is a “Bishop,” not a “King”), eats in the Vatican cafeteria with nuns and janitors, and wears orthopedic shoes rather than Prada slippers like those of his predecessor. Even non-Catholics concede there is something special and uniquely endearing about Pope Francis, appropriately deemed “the People’s Pope.” That being said, despite the throngs of people reaching for him, Pope Francis is not a superhero.
The visit of “the People’s Pope,” with its massive crowds, paparazzi, dignitaries, and intense media scrutiny reminded me somewhat of the first U.S. visit of “the People’s Princess,” the late Princess Diana, in 1985. The papal visit had a similar air of celebrity that was simultaneously understandable and disconcerting. Just as Diana was more than the myth that preceded her arrival, Pope Francis is more than a “magic priest” in a white zucchetto. Touching Pope Francis or receiving his blessing will not make you holier, solve your financial woes, or miraculously cure your illness. Call me a jaded Catholic, but stuffed pope dolls, pope bobble heads, and miniature mitres are nothing more than frivolous hoopla that misses the mark. Waving a papal flag won’t enhance spirituality or deepen empathy; actively following the Pope’s example, however, will.
But how many of us are willing to follow and live plainly? How many of us would trade our massive SUVs for a Fiat or sell that McMansion and move to more modest accommodations? How many of us are willing to shun material things and live a more Christ-centered existence? Many give lip-service to the Pope’s attitude; few are able to follow him. And those same people applauding the Pope’s message of inclusion are the ones posting judgmental commentary on Facebook. We can all love the Pope, but we aren’t quite so willing to “walk the walk.”
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Upon the Pope’s departure in Philadelphia, a television commentator asked a Catholic priest if the Pope’s message during this historic visit will have a lasting impact. Naturally, the priest responded positively. I beg to differ. Again, call me cynical, but for the most part, the Pope’s message of honoring diversity and loving one another will be forgotten before the week is done. Comparatively few people, Catholic or otherwise, will reflect upon the Pope’s message and respond. The Pope’s time in Washington, New York, and Philly will likely not be thought of again until the “highlights of 2015” countdown on New Year’s Eve. The Pope will rank right up there with Donald Trump’s entertaining pursuit of the Republican nomination for President.
That’s not to say the Pope wasted his time here. Quite the contrary. The measure of Pope Francis’ success is not in television ratings or magazine covers; it rests in one changed heart effecting a gentler world, one soul moving forward in its relationship with God. All I’m saying here is this: don’t look upon Pope Francis as some sort of magic cure-all for spiritual woes. The Lord helps those who help themselves. If you want to reap a miracle out of Pope Francis’ visit, then be willing to be the miracle for someone else. Reject the heavenly hoopla, the silly Pope souvenirs that will clutter yard sales for years to come, the debate stirred by the Pope’s words or actions. Spirituality isn’t fantasy. It’s not a parade down Fifth Avenue or a band drumming at an airport. It’s quiet, humble, active, and powerful in its simplicity.
Like Pope Francis.