Opinion: Pope Francis reminds us about the joy of being with people

by Bernard F. O'Connor, OSFS | Oct 04, 2015

Fr. O'Connor in U.S. Congress Gallery

Please note: This opinion originally appeared in The Morning Call on Sunday, October 4, 2015 

Fr. O'Connor in U.S. Congress Gallery 

Through the kindness of Rep. Charlie Dent, I was invited to attend the address of Pope Francis to the joint session of Congress on Sept. 24 (see photo above). In fact, I sat in the seat that is normally reserved for the congressman's charming wife, Pamela.

Both our nation and the pope presented themselves in ways that made me proud to be an American and to be a Roman Catholic. The prepared texts of the pope were carefully and maturely designed to open dialogues with the American people about the true nature of joy and the ultimate purpose of life on this Earth.

The masterful planning and meticulous execution of the itinerary were impressive and coherent. The diligent concern for the well-being of the Holy Father was an act of love. The management of the large numbers of people who wanted to be in the presence of the pope was equally impressive. But the thing that fascinated me the most was simply the magnetism of the man himself.

Pope Francis exudes an immense sense of joy coming from his encounters with other human beings. His personhood almost burst with intensity as he embraces another person. You can see the wonderful delight that he enjoys as he kisses the little babies, or reaches out to the prisoner, or offers a cup of soup to the downtrodden.

When the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, extended a robust welcome at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the pope almost jumped out of this chair in delight to see a good friend. When the pope prayed at the reflecting pools for the victims of the World Trade Center massacre, he clearly embodied the emptiness that comes from the inability to embrace these persons today.

Pope Francis has a clear insight into one of the key mysteries of the Christian tradition. Our God loves to be with his people. "Being with" produces an immense amount of joy. And mercy is often the doorway to this encounter with the heart of the other.

He knows firsthand that many people in the industrialized nations have lost this ability to find joy in the simple embrace of another person. In many ways, the pope's message was directed to the affluent and successful people of Europe and America.

It is unfortunate, but affluence and joy are seldom found together. In some very mysterious way, possessions and material success tend to deflect the human heart from these simple pleasures of joy that the pope finds so liberating. One little example might instruct us. Pope Francis had to choose between a formal lunch with the entire leadership of Congress or a visit to a soup kitchen run by Catholic Charities. The Holy Father selected the latter. Why would a person make such a decision?

In our present culture, the attraction of being in the presence of important people, of being in the midst of the powerful and the influential, of being associated with the movers and shakers of our society has a powerful allure. We mistakenly believe that our personhood is somehow enriched by these associations.

But the Holy Father knows that it is really difficult to truly "be with" those who are self-absorbed and encapsulated within themselves. Often the structures of complex modern life leave little space for these more intimate moments of heart-to-heart communion. As joy is gradually drained from life, the person can mistakenly panic and simply intensify the quest for power and wealth.

One of the delights of being on a college campus with young people is to encounter their wonderful commitment to helping the poor and the disadvantaged of society.

They know the joy that comes from hosting a Christmas party for senior citizens at a nursing home. They volunteer to spend their spring break working for Habitat for Humanity in a city they have never seen. Through the Best Buddies program, they spend one Saturday a month with someone who has an intellectual or developmental disability. They travel to Kolkata, India, after graduation to spend two weeks working with the Sisters of Mother Teresa.

In all of these encounters, they find hearts that are open to them. It is possible to commune with them. Their hearts can touch. And joy is released instantly.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Messiah will be called Immanuel (God with us). Our Catholic faith claims that Jesus is this Messiah. Our pope offers us an example of how to be God-like by "being with each other." We thank the Holy Father for this wonderful refresher course.

The Rev. Bernard O'Connor is president of DeSales University.

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