Why do I feel this way ... and what, if anything, am I going to do about it?
While covering the Pope’s visit last week for Aleteia, I was fortunate enough to be sitting front and center at the USCCB Media Center in Washington, DC, where we reporters were provided with a live, unfiltered feed of many of the Pope’s activities — including, at times, his travel from venue to venue, and some of the downtime in between events. Because Francis is who he is, this meant I spent a lot of time watching him simply interact with people … all kinds of people, from some of the wealthiest and most powerful on Earth to those on the fringes — the homeless, the disabled, the young. The people the Holy Father encountered in DC were a veritable cross-section of humanity, and it was impossible not to notice his passionate love for a very specific type of person — the needy ones.
Watching Francis traverse my adopted hometown, I was struck by how the weaker and more openly helpless a person appeared, the happier our Pope seemed to be to see him. While at times he seemed to be barely tolerating the presence of some of our more puffed-up elected officials with their tailored suits, expensive accessories and perfectly styled hair — maybe even a bit exhausted by them — he found a fresh spring in his step each time he crossed paths with the lowly.
The joy on his face as he embraced unkempt people living on the streets; profoundly disabled people reclining semi-aware in wheelchairs; and tired, overstimulated children in their parents’ arms was inspiring. He didn’t just grin at them, he glowed. He showered them with kisses and blessings. Gone was the stiffness and formality of his interactions on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Out among the crowds, he could find the people he clearly preferred — and they didn’t look anything like the people who fill most of our “aspirational” Instagram feeds.
As I watched Francis pour out his love on the least-wanted people in our society, I was reminded of the Christ of the Gospels. And it made me feel terrible, because it made me wonder — what would Francis think of me? What does Jesus think of me?
You see, while I’m as broken inside as anyone else — maybe in more ways than most, even, since I have an “invisible” disability I struggle daily to live with, and some serious personal wounds — I do my level best to hide it all. As far as most of the world knows, I’m living the dream: I’m a moderately successful writer with a loyal, attractive husband; two cute, healthy, clever children; brilliant, interesting friends; and a lovely home. They think that because that’s what I show them — in my writing, on social media, and often during small talk at the playground or at parties.
And why wouldn’t I? Our culture abhors neediness. Our American sense of individualism tells us we’re only worth as much as our measurable contributions to the world. Meanwhile, any demands we make on the time or resources of others actually diminish our worth. If, God forbid, we’re really inconvenient, we can actually drop below “worthless” in the eyes of society and become something worse — dead weight, a drain on resources, a net liability, a parasite. What is abortion, really, but a way to eliminate the neediest and most helpless among us before they can suck away our precious resources? Likewise, doctor-assisted suicide is already legal in a few states, and may soon spread to more, as elderly and gravely ill people too terrified to become burdensome in their infirmity try to hang on to their last shred of “dignity” by attempting to go out on a high note — before they have to feel the final bits of love and respect offered by those around them fade away.
In a nation where “elective termination” is not only an accepted, but the most common outcome for developing babies suspected of having Down Syndrome; where we’d rather lock the mentally ill and drug addicts away in prisons than look them in the eye and offer help, where a young girl who makes the mistake of revealing her emotional needs to a boy after she gives him her virginity is blacklisted as a “Stage 5 Clinger;” it’s no wonder that social media has given rise to this Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest culture, in which we all pretend for the camera and each other that we are doing just fine … better than fine, actually — terrific, amazing, couldn’t be better! #soblessed
Last week, Francis called our bluff as he appeared to take us at our word. Over and over, he asked us — the ones who like to pretend we have it all together — to pray for him, while he showered love, blessings and words of comfort on the ones who couldn’t pretend to have it together if they tried.
This isn’t a story of the prodigal son and his elder brother. I don’t begrudge the needy the very deserved attention they received from our Holy Father last week, and I’ve never claimed to be a perfect Catholic, or even a particularly good one. At no point did I want to deny the marginalized the feast Pope Francis offered them.
No, if there’s a Bible story that applies to my conflicted feelings about last week, it’s the one about the rich young man who approached Jesus and asked “What must I do to follow you?” Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him … in other words, abandon the entire identity he’d built up as an independent, successful young man and take his place among the marginalized. Ultimately, the young man found the cost too high.
As Francis challenges us to embrace our brotherhood with society’s “untouchables,” how will we react?
For my part, I’ve realized that on the inside, I’m not that different than many of the people on the fringe, I’m just better at hiding it. (I thank God for a friend who reminded me as I was writing this piece that Jesus, unlike Francis, can see the heart.) Now, I’m wondering if hiding my many weaknesses behind protective walls is such a good thing, after all. Maybe it’s time for me to start revealing my own brokenness to the world … if not all at once, then bit by bit, until the barriers between myself and mercy — and myself and my spiritual brothers and sisters — crumble away with the rest of my sinful pride.