Watching Pope Francis tootle down Fifth Avenue in his little Fiat gave me a warm feeling. Sure, the unpretentious little car is only a symbol, but symbols are important. The pope’s Fiat is a symbol of humility, a virtue you don’t see much. All the popes in my lifetime (except perhaps John XXIII) seemed to have been taken with their own importance. They probably even believed in Papal (that is, their own) Infallibility.* Throughout his papacy, Francis has made a point of eschewing many of the trappings of his office, right down to his automobile.
The pope has his weak points, as Adam Gopnik points out in “The Pope and the Labels of Liberalism” in The New Yorker. Nevertheless, it was heartening to listen to his speeches and sermons during his short visit. Pope Francis’ message for everyone, from the fractious U.S. Congress to the turbulent United Nations, is about the importance of understanding, compromise and compassion. For a few days, it seemed those virtues were something we could all learn to practice. Imagine what the coming U.S. election season would be like if candidates told the truth, talked about what truly matters, and were concerned with real human issues rather than what polls indicate they should say. Imagine a political climate in which “Muslim” wasn’t a code word for “terrorist.”
There is a place in our country where understanding, common ground and reconciliation among Christians, Muslims and Jews are taught and practiced. That is The Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. More on this wonderful place next week.
*Yes, Papal Infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church.