After Krakow and Calcutta I wasn't expecting much from an assignment in Baltimore. More fool, me.
In my role as Art Director for Aleteia.org, I’ve had an exciting and faith-affirming 2016: to travel to Poland to photograph the crowds (and experience the power) of World Youth Day; I went to India to cover the canonization of Mother Teresa, and discovered there a world of pain and poverty, and selfless giving, that left me – still has me – reeling. On assignment for EWTN, I was privileged to witness the intimate grief of humble Poor Clare nuns, mourning Mother Angelica.
So, when the National Catholic Register assigned me to cover the General Assembly of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Baltimore, I wasn’t expecting to do much more than capture shot after shot of black-clad men speaking into microphones. Compared to the rest of the year, the gig seemed… unglamorous, to say the least.
But, “Be present,” said a little voice inside me.
Ah yes, be present. It’s something I’ve learned and written about over the span of this year, something that I have struggled with all my life: how to steer my attention away from what I think I “need” to be doing, and allowing myself to be wherever I am, really experiencing whatever I am covering. The bishops’ assembly would be an opportunity, bar none, to put this into practice, I figured. So I resolved to obey the nudge: do my assignment, but do it while being present.
And I’m so glad I did. Because what I saw, and learned, from fully committing to where I was completely changed the way I see the Catholic Church.
I’ve always thought of bishops as sort of exalted — removed from the real world, and the press — both secular and religious — has helped create that perception. They write vaguely of a generalized group, “the bishops,” whenever they need an example of the Church as something against the culture, or out of touch, or, well, anything other than what the Church really is. It’s a tragically flawed stereotype. Unfortunately, it’s a stereotype that a lot of people, even Catholics, buy into. I had.
But in the hours of watching (and waiting for my brief minutes of shoot time), I listened. In a huge room sat the leaders of the Catholic Church in America, discussing many things, but what jumped out at me were their thoughtful remarks about making Catholic education more accessible, caring for married couples in their commitment to each other, the plight of refugees in the Middle East, the importance of supporting the Latino community, and the dignity of every human life.
They were discussing us, not as overlords, but in the way parents discuss their children. Their tones were full of caring, passionate and, yes, love. They discussed how to help us grow as people, how to have more fulfilled lives in the love of Christ, and how to defend us against a culture determined to destroy us.
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I learned that the bishops are just men — men faced with the awesome responsibility of guiding us on the path to salvation. And that they actually care.
I don’t know why this came as such a surprise to me. Perhaps it’s because through years of covering Catholic events, there always seemed to be a distance between me and them. Something, quite frankly, that always bothered me.
But now I wonder if any distance I might have felt was a necessary distance — the way all people in leadership roles need to stay in their role, maintaining a self-contained focus that both takes up and goes beyond the individual realities of themselves or the people they’re charged to serve.
In any case, I walked away with a better understanding of the wisdom of the Church in its hierarchy. We are a huge family with a single Savior; we need help to stay focused on the Way to being with each other, and with Him.
So maybe next time you have a free moment, write a little note to your bishop and thank him for his service. Let him know that you’re praying for him (and really do pray for him). A little encouragement from the ranks might be appreciated. Leadership can be a lonely business.
As for me, shooting the event was an absolute pleasure, and all that sitting around was totally worth it. It turns out that being present, being still, and just listening really can change everything.