I was sitting in my office watching a video on my computer screen — tears welling up in my eyes. The video hadn’t even really started yet. I was just watching the promo clips. It was the footage of the 20/20 special with Pope Francis that aired on ABC over Labor Day weekend ("Pope Francis and the People"). My reaction surprised me. I hadn’t seen or heard the pope say anything yet. But I was deeply touched. Why?
On Tuesday morning I will leave for Philadelphia. The Marianists will have a booth in the exhibition hall at the World Meeting of Families (booth 336 — Come visit if you’re there!) as part of our vocations efforts. The meeting will end on Friday, but my co-worker from our high school and I are staying until Sunday evening so that we are there for Pope Francis’ visit. Many of our co-workers and friends have expressed their excitement that two of us will be there. We keep telling them that we will be two in a sea of millions. He won’t even know we’re there. But the excitement increases nonetheless. Why?
I’ve been reflecting recently on why I and so many others are so taken with Pope Francis. One of our sisters, shortly after Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, stated that she had a serious case of “pope hope.” It didn’t take long before I was saying the same thing. Why?
Perhaps it’s because when I see him I see an authentic witness for the Gospel to whom I can relate. I see someone down to earth with whom I feel I could have a good conversation about the important issues in our world and church; someone around whom I would not be overly intimidated or afraid of being myself. When I was younger I can remember me and my peers reacting the same way to Pope John Paul II, who we affectionately called JP2. But I was too young to delve too deeply into his encyclicals, statements and symbolic gestures. As a teenager I was too wrapped up in myself to study JP2 very closely, and as I got older my enthusiasm waned somewhat. And while I did pay attention and read a lot from Pope Benedict XVI, my enthusiasm did not reach the levels of what I felt for JP2. I thought that perhaps I had grown out of that sort of enthusiasm, as if I was now too old for that kind of thing.
But, here I am — crying like a teenager at a concert over Pope Francis.
Several months ago a friend and I were discussing what it’s like to be in the presence of someone who exudes peace, love and holiness. We’ve all met people like that, I’m sure. These are people from whom you can sense compassion, calm, joy and a spirit of prayer. There is something about these people that draws us in and challenges us to be the people we are called to be. And while I’ve not personally met Pope Francis, this is the sense I get from him.
My “pope hope” is great indeed.
For many years I have been worried about the divisions in our society that have seeped into the church in the United States. Our broken political system plays out in our church in many ways — some obvious, some much more covert. For example, there seems to be a belief among many that the folks interested in social justice are not traditional enough, and those who are more traditional in practice are not concerned enough for the needs of their fellow human beings. Or there are those who believe that one political party is Catholic and the other is not, when, truth be told, neither political platform represents the totality of Catholic moral or social teaching. Both major parties miss the mark. People may think this is a gross exaggeration. And while it may be an over-simplification, it is in my experience not hyperbolic.
And while these divisions can still cause me much anxiety and heartache, there is something about Pope Francis that gives me hope in the midst of such divisions. Perhaps he can help us heal the divide? Perhaps his encouragement will help us learn to dialogue again with those with whom we disagree? Maybe he will remind us of the call of the Gospel to love above all else.
This will be my prayer as I watch news reports on the pope’s address to Congress and other statements made on his visit. And this will be my prayer as I most likely cry my way through the papal Mass in Philadelphia.
[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]