‘He Looked Up’: A Franciscan Friar’s Gift to Us

Father Andrew Apostoli (image via YouTube)
A remembrance of Father Andrew Apostoli: He embodied the joyful hope that comes from paying attention to the wide world beyond the self.

‘He looked up.” The homilist at Father Andrew Apostoli’s funeral Mass was describing what was different about the Franciscan friar’s life — radically so, when you think about, if you focus on this looking up business. It’s such a common occurrence, in the course of buying a cup of coffee or using an Uber or walking down the street or taking an elevator, for people to look down, texting or checking the news or Facebook. Selfies can seem like the only time people look up. Even in St. Patrick’s Cathedral sometimes, which happens to be right by my office, people seem to look up only to get the perfect photo of themselves with the neo-Gothic backdrop. (Though I did hear a woman the other day look out from the center of the main aisle only to be disappointed, even peeved, that you cannot see the Rockefeller Center tree from there. Remembering the Macy’s sign — “The Gifts You Love” — on a lamppost outside another church in town, I thought: Stay inside and look around a while. You may find what your heart is looking for: a consoling hope in faith beyond the material world.)

National Review recently moved to 44th street off Fifth Avenue, where there seem to be one of two strategies — to keep looking at your phone, so as to not be overwhelmed by all the people and buildings and deliveries and traffic, or to look up! And so I do find myself looking up — at the Chrysler Building, which can be seen from the ladies’-room window, or the very top of the Empire State Building, which I never had such an intimate view of as I do from my office. What draws me in, though, are the sun and the sky and the magnificent architecture that seems to be ever-present and changing: the emanations bursting through the busyness to illuminate the seemingly endless varieties of reflections on buildings. Looking up, you see workmanship and excellence and even the hopes and dreams of men. Of course it may all be bundled with many complications and histories of corruption and injustice. But looking up you find yourself grateful and wanting to see the good more often. After looking up and appreciating the gift of the light, you are better able to see Mike sitting there on the corner by Penn Station, who lights up at even the briefest conversation when you respond to his hands outstretched with a cup for a little help.

In his Christmas address to Vatican staff, Pope Francis hit a similar theme, one very much in the tradition of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the religious community to which the man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio belongs. “Seen in this light, my appeal to the senses of the human body helps us have a sense of extroversion, of attention to what is outside. In the human body, the senses are our first connection to the world ad extra; they are like a bridge toward that world; they enable us to relate to it. The senses help us to grasp reality and at the same time to situate ourselves in reality. Not by chance did Saint Ignatius appeal to the senses for the contemplation of the mysteries of Christ and truth.”

He continued, saying: “This is very important for rising above that unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques that in fact represent — for all their self-justification and good intentions — a cancer leading to . . . self-centeredness.” This self-centeredness, which comes when we do not look up in gratitude and hopeful expectation, causes us to lose joy and generosity, he said. He was speaking to a specific group of people, but it’s about life in this world. He talked about the importance of receptivity, of “grasping the aspirations, the questions, the pleas, the joys and the sorrows” — there’s so much of this in so many of our everyday encounters. If we would only be open to looking and listening with enlightened hearts and eyes.

In a book on joy, Father Apostoli wrote that the key phrase in John 16:20 in Scripture “is Our Lord’s telling us ‘Your grief will be turned into joy.’ He does not say that our sorrow will be removed and replaced with a joy that is completely unrelated to sorrow. He says that our sorrow will be turned into joy. This is not a replacement, it is a transformation! The sorrows shared with Jesus mysteriously become the key to unlocking the joys of knowing and loving Him more deeply.”

Around this time of year, December 25 tends to be already over, and also the looking up — at trees and colored lights and home lawn displays and ads about joy trying to get you to buy all kinds of products — right along with the Christmas and more secular holiday music. At his funeral Mass, Father Apostoli was described as a man with “an award-winning smile” whose life was “like a tree bearing fruit”; “Father Andrew looked up. His life is an inspiration and provocation to do the same.” Doing the same could just be transformational and inspiring. It could provoke people to look up beyond the echo chambers that happen to be full of whatever outrage is booming about at the moment. Looking up to real hope, and to being the change.