Photo courtesy of Jared Gruenwald
by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger
The run-up to the papal mass in Philadelphia felt like a countdown to a combination birthday + Christmas + first day of summer vacation when I was a little girl. I had spent weeks thinking about this day, imagining everything to come, anticipating the excitement. But I never pictured what turned out to be its most extraordinary moment.
The givens: the crowd, which grew by the minute; the musicians and performers, who created an enormous international street fair; and let’s not forget the jumbo screens, the 10,000-seat “church,” the banners, and the babies, and the toddlers—so many of them! Not one bit was unexpected on the day we went to mass with Pope Francis, and every bit was welcome.
Another “given” was the delivery of the sermon. Pope Francis called families “true domestic churches.” He mentioned everyday actions that make up our lives: “Hugs after an absence, a warm meal shared at the end of the day, evening prayers and the like teach us love…. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love.”
He told us: “Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which teaches children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil—a family which shows that the Spirit is alive and at work—will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation,” he said. “Whatever the family, people, region, or religion to which they belong!”
If that isn’t welcoming and inclusive, I don’t know what is.
There were also a few “mind = blown” moments when I felt outside myself, almost in awe of real life unfolding before me. The first time I saw Pope Francis in the motorcade, waving to thousands, I did an unconscious and completely spontaneous “Home Alone”—my hands flew to my cheeks in amazement and joy. Yes, joy. (It was right about then that I started tearing up, and I didn’t really stop until the pope left the altar.)
More mind = blown: Watching Pope Francis consecrate the bread and wine. Having him pray for me, “Peace be with you” and the incredible opportunity I had to respond, “And with your spirit.” With his spirit! A greeting from him to me and me to him! Those moments and others will remain within me as I reflect on this day.
Snapshots: The young woman we saw standing before a priest. As we passed them, he softly laid his hand on her head and we heard his hushed tone: “I absolve you of your sins…” Our seat neighbors, John and his charming and accomplished 82-year-old mother, Ardelia, who shared amazing stories of her girlhood and her family’s well-traveled life together. Hundreds of young parents, sitting on blankets with their toddlers or babies, anticipating those precious seconds when they would celebrate their family with Pope Francis as he passed by. We were a perfect collage of disconnected pieces that created a beautiful whole.
Ultimately, though, what was that one exact moment that felt the most remarkable, the most moving, and the most inexplicable? In a day like no other, what was it that took me entirely by surprise?
The quiet. In that outdoor cathedral, it was the enormous silence that surrounded me—and about 1 million other people—as we spent time in prayer and meditation after communion was distributed. No shouts, no whispers. Just the leaves fluttering in the breeze and the sound of 1 million people in silent prayer. Silence that was far from empty. Silence filled with hope.
For me, this quiet time was when I knew with every bit of my soul and my heart that I was perhaps for the first time in my life in the presence of true and pure goodness. Of true, pure kindness and eternal love. That, yes, Pope Francis is a human being and flawed, but at his core, he is also deeply and undeniably love and acceptance personified.
Since that day, I have chosen to ignore opinion pieces and columns telling us how the pope is out of touch with our world, how he is not “with us” on women’s issues or on the complex nature of human sexuality, on capitalism, or on immigration. Some of those views may be valid—maybe all of them are. I can’t say.
But he’s with us on love. If we need more than that to lead lives of compassion for each other, and to one day leave the world a better place, I am unaware of it.
Pope Francis praised the families at the meeting, calling their presence “something prophetic, a kind of miracle in today’s world.” It was. But as I witnessed the human mosaic surrounding me, I found myself channeling my own inner Jon Landau to reach an even greater conclusion: “Through the miracle of grace and love, I have seen the bright future of our world; and it is us.”
Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.