In the year 1979, Pope John Paul II visited his home country of Poland for the first time since being elected pope. At the time Poland was under communist rule and her people were beginning to lose hope. At one point John Paul II spoke to the crowds “You are not who ‘they’ say you are. Let me remind you who you really are.” On several occasions he repeated the simple phrase used by Christ, “Do not be afraid”. Many historians credit the liberation of Poland from communist rule in part to Pope John Paul II’s presence during his nine day visit. He didn’t speak solely on politics throughout his visit. He didn’t threaten or blackmail political leaders to change their ways. Instead he fulfilled his role as a shepherd, reminding his sheep of the voice of the Eternal Shepherd. By his presence he gave the people hope which in time led to the collapse of communism in Poland and eventually all of Europe.
I’m reminded of these events as I reflect on my recent pilgrimage to Washington DC where I had the opportunity to see our Holy Father Pope Francis from ten feet away. Many people have since asked me “What was it like to see the pope?” “Did you get to touch him?” “Did you get a selfie with him?” I’m sure all these questions have good intentions behind them, but I think the people who ask them are missing something important.
I once saw Detroit Tigers All-Star Justin Verlander warming-up just twenty feet away from me. I once shook hands with Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe. I’ve been in the front row of concerts and have even seen some singers backstage. There’s a rush when you’re in the presence of a celebrity. Being in the presence of Pope Francis was exhilarating, but not in the same way as being in the presence of a celebrity. When he walks by you don’t really find yourself thinking “I hope he signs this” or “I hope we can get a selfie together.” Instead you find yourself thinking “I am in the presence of a holy man” and the world seems to stand still for a moment.
One of the biggest differences I see between most celebrities and the pope is that celebrities are generally represented as isolated individuals whereas the pope must be seen as part of something greater. When you see a celebrity you see the individual and all that they have accomplished. “Wow, you’re Gordie Howe! You’re Mr. Hockey! You helped the Red Wings win four Stanley Cups.” When the media sees Pope Francis, they too try to make him look like a celebrity. They try to portray him as merely a political and social activist. A good role model. A celebrity. It’s like he’s a cowboy out there all on his own as he says nice things and kisses babies. But Pope Francis is not an isolated individual just being a nice dude for the fun of it; he is fulfilling his role as the successor of St. Peter, the rock on which Christ built his church.
We always see things on the news about how he eats with the homeless, serves the poor, writes and speaks about his desire to bring about worldwide social and economic justice, and embraces a call to poverty and humility in a fashion that is somewhat unique to his predecessors. This has given him the nickname “The People’s Pope”. Though you need not be Catholic to appreciate the good that Pope Francis is doing, you must be aware that he is first and foremost a Catholic priest. He belongs to something much greater than himself. This love he has for others comes from the fact that he knows he is loved by God and so is everyone else he encounters. He is strengthened on the journey not by his fame or approval ratings but by the Holy Eucharist. He is so joyful because he has encountered God’s mercy which gives him a deep sense of peace. He is not merely a “good person”, a mascot for secular humanists; he truly is a disciple of Jesus Christ who has been given the authority to shepherd His church on earth for a period of time.
When Pope Francis walked ten feet in front of me in DC, he was processing to the main altar to celebrate the Mass. At that point he wasn’t trying to reach into our pews to shake our hands or take selfies with us. He had his eyes set on the altar where he was about to celebrate the sacrament where heaven and earth collide. He walked with his crosier in hand, signifying crucified-Christ was leading the way. He was showing the world that he is first and foremost a Catholic priest. The pope is not looking to sign endorsements, he’s looking to save souls. He’s a shepherd who wants to spend time with his sheep as he helps lead us to our eternal home.
When Pope Francis walked by there was this deep sense in my heart that I was in the presence of a holy man. Not a talented athlete, artist, actor, or politician. A holy priest of Jesus Christ. We never made direct eye contact. We never shook hands. We never got a selfie together. But I didn’t need any of that. I needed to be in the presence of someone who challenged me to reconsider what’s truly important in life. I needed someone who could say by his example what Pope John Paul II said to the people of Poland, “Let me remind you who you really are.”
I think many of us are intrigued by the life of Pope Francis because we know deep down he is living the life we are all meant to live and we’re surprised at how it seems to bring him so much joy. We want the peace, the joy, the boldness that he has but we lack the courage to embrace the call to holiness. When I saw Pope Francis, I felt a deep reassurance that I was a beloved son of the Father just like he is. I was challenged to strive to do God’s will with the same intentionality that he does. I was reminded that the life Jesus offers us through his Church is the life worth living. I was inspired to become all that I am meant to be.
That’s the kind of inspiration a mere celebrity can’t provide.