The Pope and Gospel Power

Pope Francis rides to mass in Philadelphia, September 27, 2015. (Alex Brandon-Pool/Getty)
An invitation of a lifetime didn’t end with wheels-up to Rome.

Pope Francis came and went, and our headlines — apart for the ones about his visit —  remained the same. The House seemed to miss an opportunity in Planned Parenthood hearings to make progress in our intractable abortion debate. Oregon families mourned loved ones killed in another shooting, and pundits around the country sounded off. We yell about laws in our grief, but something more is needed — something more foundational, something that would aid in tending to wounds and confusion and misunderstanding.

Bryan Carter runs Gesu, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia. He is one of many people I met in Philadelphia this fall who wanted to tell their Catholic stories to the world that seemed to be descending on the City of Brotherly Love. Some of his students tangoed for the pope during a Festival of Families welcoming him to town. Seventh- and eighth-graders at Gesu tango because of a woman named Sue Shea, who was urged by tragedy into a more radical giving. A decade ago she founded Dancing with the Students to offer ballroom dancing to students, parents, and teachers in impoverished areas of the city. Students learn a skill, have some fun — occasionally getting very cool gigs like a Phillies or 76ers game — and learn mutual respect, manners, and confidence in the good of these. In addition to “learning the tango, merengue, swing, and waltz, our young men understand how to approach a young lady to ask for a dance; the young ladies now know how they should be approached by young men,” Carter tells me. Their growth is noticeable. And Sue Shea, he says, “is not only a true champion for Gesu School and our children, but also for hundreds of other children throughout Philadelphia.” Her program, founded at Gesu, is currently being used in ten schools around the area.

Needless to say, the visit of the first Jesuit pope from the Americas was a big deal for Gesu. But for Carter, it was much more than having some of his students on center stage. It was an opportunity for renewal, for a reminder about who we are and who we can be, about where we came from and what we are made for.

This was not a close encounter with a celebrity so much as an experience of the universal Church right at home.

When the dancing stopped, there was prayer. Pope Francis raised his hand in blessing. This was not a close encounter with a celebrity so much as an experience of the universal Church right at home. It was an opportunity for renewal and remembrance, as Carter and his students saw a pope up close and joined in prayer. Carter was particularly moved by praying the “Our Father” on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And while some dismiss Pope Francis for his seemingly simplistic messages, there is a power there: Gospel power. Power that gets people to do things that are not necessarily in their self-interest, and that don’t always make sense by worldly standards, but that can get to the heart of what we’re missing in our daily lives.

Reflecting on what the pope said that Sunday during Mass, Carter told me: “The homily emphasized how small gestures of love help cultivate faith, and how those small gestures could serve to create a better, more loving world. ‘Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures,’ he said. ‘These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family. They get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion.’ ” 

And so, on Monday, a tired Carter built some daddy–daughter time into his day, involving a playground and milkshakes. Little gestures like this aren’t heroic, but they build habits that inculcate virtue. “I will always think of leading a life that is pleasing to God,” Carter says. A good Jesuit, Pope Francis leads people in examining their consciences, identifying their motivations and responses, and making changes in the light of faith. Carter prays that the visit helps people be “men and women for others,” as a Jesuit tenet puts it. That is not a political manifesto, but, when put into practice, it has the power of a revolution.

#related#While here, Pope Francis talked about religious freedom and the good that is religion: “Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty, and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. . . . Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, ‘they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 256). They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”

That’s why the pope’s coming here was important. It gave us a moment to stop and reflect. In the flurry of his schedule, a lot of this never made it into the headlines. But the texts exist, and they’re well worth pondering for anyone who wants something better than distractions and incivility. People who are doing good will be energized to do more. That’s freedom at work, and that’s the fuel of a healthy society. Whether we’re talking about policy or daddy–daughter time, “Love one another” is a message that never grows old — and one to which we’re not known to have perfected our response. Totally radical, it can trump — or inspire — any political platform. And save the lives of young men and women and refresh souls aching for the solace and challenge of the transcendent.


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