Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has inspired the world. He was elected pope in April of this year following the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. He didn't want to be Pope. He didn't expect to become the Pope. He had already purchased his return ticket for Argentina. Immediately after his election all sorts of tales began appearing in the news. It appears he is a very newsworthy person. One of the first stories was about him paying the bill for his hotel room, himself and then taking a taxi back to where he needed to be. Now, I've done those things many times in my life as I'm sure you may have, but no one ever thought it was of so much interest that they announced it in the media! The behavior and words of Pope Francis have since been announced and scrutinized. He is both applauded and criticized. He is unlike most world leaders and yet he is subject to the same scrutiny as all of them. He comes up short for some but it appears as of this date, he is mostly being hailed as a man of humility and wisdom, two qualities we all should strive to possess but which if possessed by our leaders make for a kinder, more compassionate society.
This month Pope Francis was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine. It appears the criteria for this acknowledgement is who Time believes has had the greatest impact on society during the year. It is not always someone who has had a positive effect on our world. The opposite is true for Pope Francis. They named him because of his philosophy or a better word would be theology. His mission is to provide care and dignity for all human beings. Mother Teresa also had that mission. It's what Jesus Christ's mission was when He walked on this earth and according to our Catholic tradition Pope Francis is His representative here, today. He is the 266th pope and so far he has shown himself to be quite unique in his role as Pope. There's been a photo circulating on the internet that shows Pope Francis in one half and Pope Benedict XVI in the other. It says "Can you see the differences?" Unlike the Sunday cartoon quiz which makes it difficult to pick out the different character, this "quiz" is very easy. Pope Francis has abandoned the fancy trappings used by the pope's of the past.
The latest picture being circulated is of Pope Francis kissing the head of a severely disfigured man. There's a rumor that he goes out into the slums of Italy and provides solace for the populace. It is a fact that he did this when he was in Argentina, so it's not too farfetched to believe he's continued this practice. His first encyclical addressed the distribution of wealth throughout the world. He doesn't believe the system most countries, including ours works to the benefit of the neediest. Conservatives who only focus on economics aren't very happy with the Pope's message but the Pope isn't concerned with their opinion. He is only concerned with how society will respond to the needs of the most poor and the most suffering of us. Yes, I said us.
In my daily reading Spiritual Insights the focus for the month of December is unity. Each day I am reminded that we are all one. Once you begin to believe that, you will recognize that if one of us is suffering we are responsible to find a way to alleviate that suffering and the world is suffering of this there is no doubt. It takes very little awareness to recognize the distress of this world. Sometimes when I hear some of the stories, I am completely overwhelmed by what's going on. I am horrified by the cruelty. I fully recognize that I don't even have a clue of the horrors that are taking place in our world even as I write this and to be honest, I really don't want to know the details. I only know they exist and as the year has passed I have found myself called to step up and to be more aware of the poor and suffering and to reach out in a way that alleviates their suffering, perhaps even brings them joy and peace.
It's the message I have been receiving these last few months. It began before Pope Francis was even elected. It has been here all along as all important messages are but I wasn't ready to fully embrace it. I mean what can I do to help those most in need? The second part of that question is, what will I be called on to do and am I ready and willing? The clearest message came from Albert Haase's book Catching Fire Becoming Flame. He says that focusing on Christ "leads us right into the heart of a suffering, needy world where we are sent to respond lovingly to the unmet need or required duty of the present moment." It is our mission in life. It is our reason for existing, to make the world a kinder more compassionate place.
As my friend and I walked around the lake we talked about how we can help change the world. It was a good walk! What can we possibly do to aid in the conversion of hearts to bring them to a place of love and peace? We can begin with ourselves. The first place where the transformation must begin is within our own hearts. Luke 1:68-79 says "Let there be peace on hearth and let it begin with me." After that the soul is open to the flame of transformation. If you take some time every day to connect to the Divine, you will be led to opportunities to ease the suffering of another, of others. The opportunity is there. There are so many ways to be of service if one is asking to receive them.
A friend of mine once stopped to talk to a man who looked quite deranged and was obviously homeless. She asked him how he was doing and engaged him in a very nice discussion. The rest of us had walked past, quickly. Afterwards I asked her why she had done that. She told me she asked God every day to send people to her who were in need and to whom she could respond. She told me she never knew where they would appear and she couldn't take the chance of passing someone by that might be an answer to her prayers. Do you think her kind words made any difference?
A study that took place in NYC had two groups of people passing by pedestrians on a busy sidewalk. One group would nod and smile at the stranger passing by them. The other group would ignore the stranger. The researchers then asked the stranger a few questions about how they were feeling. (How they got someone in NYC to stop and chat with them was amazing to me but they did.) The people who were smiled at had a higher level of contentment than those who were ignored. If just a simple smile from a stranger can add to the joy of this world, what a difference we can make if we are making an effort to ease the suffering and pain of whomever we meet and hopefully, whomever we are holding in our prayers.
Trust me, just like my friend, once you ask God to allow you to be of service, opportunities will present themselves and once you open yourself up to caring about the marginalized and suffering of this world, not only will you make a difference in other's lives, you will make a difference in your life. Your heart and this world will be transformed.