Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., and to our campus here at the Catholic University of America, shook us up, literally. They moved the earth and changed the physical infrastructure of the campus to make room for the 30,000 guests we hosted last week. Landscaping and bushes were moved and strategically planted to funnel the crowds; trees were temporarily trussed so as not to block the view. Every trash can and parking meter were removed, for security purposes (to avoid Boston Marathon bomber scenarios). Satellite dishes and cell towers filled the parking lots to service the crush of international media who followed Pope Francis’ every move.
The hallmarks of Pope Francis’ papacy are the Four Ps– people, poverty, the planet, and peace– and he notes these are deeply interconnected, not separate technical issues, but joined moral challenges.
Why so much attention to an old, poor priest from Argentina? He is a humble man in a selfie age, an antidote to the narcissism that blares at us from all sides, in every reality TV show, celebrity product, and Facebook overshare that crowd our lives. When “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” is the most popular game show, Pope Francis prefers to be a “Servant.” Amidst a particularly mean-spirited U.S. Presidential primary race, in which candidates call immigrants rapists and criminals, Pope Francis declared himself the son of an immigrant family, and hugged an immigrant girl.
Actions speak louder than words, and Pope Francis’ actions spoke eloquent volumes. His trip itinerary was written 2,000 years ago in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink (lunch with the homeless at Catholic Charities DC), a stranger and you welcomed me (visit with immigrants in Harlem at Our Lady of Angels School, and throughout the trip), naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me (visit to the Infirmary for elderly Jesuit priests in Philadelphia), in prison and you visited me” (visit with prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility). His schedule also mirrored the Sermon on the Mount, in his meetings with the meek, the poor, the merciful, the persecuted (the Syrian family he embraced and blessed at the World meeting of Families), those who mourn (in a particularly moving ecumenical prayer service at Ground Zero in New York), and the peacemakers (interestingly, the only hand shake he extended at Congress was to peacemaker, Secretary of State John Kerry). These actions touch us at a deeper level than mere words, and are accessible across lines of culture and creed. Gandhi famously meditated on the Sermon on the Mount daily, saying if this was what it meant to be a Christian, then he was a Christian.
Pope Francis’ trip resonated so strongly with so many, of all creeds and none, because the powerful language of his actions are widely accessible and respected. Some decry these encounters as “mere gestures,” but to do so is to miss that religious language is action. The language of the gospels is all action as well. Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, ministers to the stranger and the outcast, builds peace in a war zone, and invites us to do the same. Pope Francis’ actions follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth, and like Jesus, he invites us to walk with him, and waves us on with a smile of encouragement.
Jesus talked with sinners, prostitutes, strangers, Roman rulers, Pharisees and hypocrites, the poor, the ill, women, children, working and hungry people. Likewise on his U.S. visit, Pope Francis talked with criminals, rulers, the poor, the ill, children, immigrants, an anti-gay marriage court clerk, and invited an openly gay journalist to read the First Reading at the Madison Square Garden mass. He repeatedly tells us dialogue, dialogue, dialogue is the only path to peace, and he models that for us by engaging in encounters and dialogue with a wide variety of actors. Pope Francis continually calls for dialogue among people who disagree, coming from different positions and backgrounds. Dialogue is often criticized as cheap talk, a substitute for “real action.” But for Francis, dialogue is not cheap talk, but deep and respectful listening to sometimes hard-to-hear themes. Dialogue is the start of deeper, more respectful relationships that are the lifeblood of peace.
In the crush of 30,000 people on our college campus, with the hum of cameras and satellite feeds to all corners of the globe, I was struck by the silence, by the quiet as people strained to listen to Pope Francis’ words. We live in an age awash in information, but short on wisdom. Why are so many people, from all creeds and none, listening to an old, poor, Argentinian priest? Because wisdom is in short supply these days, and wisdom never gets old.