When my class of high school students wrote to the president, I had high hopes. I could see it now: I get a stately letter — very official looking — and gingerly open it to find a beautiful handwritten note from Barack Obama himself. It would be the ultimate fist bump, one you could frame and brag about for years. Well, no such thing happened. We got a generic letter, an electronic signature, and a picture of Bo, the dog, which was a nice touch. I framed it anyway. While I’ve given up my quest for a presidential letter, I’m not entirely ready to throw in the towel. Lately, I’ve been thinking I should start writing to Pope Francis.
The world has been watching as the pope has made a number of phone calls to people who have written to him: an Italian man whose brother was murdered, a doorman at the Jesuit mother house in Rome, and the pope’s shoemaker and newspaper deliveryman in Argentina. The most recent call was made to a 44-year-old woman from Argentina who was raped twice by a police officer and subsequently threatened by him. Her perpetrator was not brought to justice after local officials covered up the crime, and the officer was even granted a promotion.
Once someone is given a position of power, it is generally accepted that he or she becomes inaccessible and out of touch with the rest of society. In this world where we equate position with power (power over), where an otherwise composed person whips out their iPhone in a paparazzi frenzy for anyone with the least bit of clout, and where celebrities are accessible only through their most recent Tweet, many have taken notice of the pope’s, well, normal behaviors.
The way we use the word “powerful” in our everyday speech can have varied, somewhat paradoxical meanings. On the one hand, we use it to refer to the power-over effect, mentioned earlier. On the other hand, we use it to describe inspiring or moving moments. Having seen 25 babies born, I’ve often described the first moment parents see their child as powerful. These and other moments cause us to take pause and look onward in awe, yet they are usually private and seen by few.
This is exactly the type Pope Francis has been having. He, however, is having these moments on the world stage, alongside the rest of the power-overs. While many would isolate him in a bulletproof box, he has continued to embrace the joys of everyday life in otherwise quiet, humble moments — the touch of a child’s face, the hug of an onlooker, the tender washing of someone’s feet — which are moving and awe-inspiring.
Not surprisingly, his actions have not been well received. From the beginning, his security team was very vocal about concerns for his safety, a concern he addressed while asserting his desire for freedom. As I watched this unfold on news websites and blogs, I couldn’t help but think, I’ve seen this before. In fact, we have. In Mark 10:13-16, the disciples rebuked the people for bringing children to Jesus. Jesus put a stop to this saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Jesus, like Pope Francis, was on the world stage, and many, even the disciples, believed not everyone was worthy of his time. Nobody could be trusted without meticulous screening. The disciples didn’t want Jesus to be bothered, pestered or touched. In that moment, Jesus calls us to a new discipleship: to be like children, to overturn this notion that we must sit in awe at the foot of God, who is not like us. Jesus came to say He is both God and us. He is not untouchable; He is relatable.
The call to the rape victim further provides an example of how Pope Francis has called us to this new discipleship, flipping power on its head. The woman, who was wronged by a person in power and subsequently not shown justice because of her perpetrator’s position, received tenderness and compassion from someone else in power. While the pope’s call cannot undo or reduce the wrong done to her, the call showed that a position of power is not an excuse to behave immorally or be immune to the suffering of others. To a woman who had been wronged by power, Francis showed that people in power could do much that is right, too.
When looking up the word “powerful” in the dictionary, the meanings generally lean toward physical strength, potency and effectiveness, a more narrow definition than that of our everyday use. But even in this meaning, the actions of Pope Francis find a home. This humble man is in fact being incredibly effective. People who have left the Church and even non-Catholics are buzzing about the latest pope news stories. He is not pulling stunts or vying for people’s attention. He is acting intentionally and, most importantly, genuinely. As a result, people are taking notice.