I was in the back seat as we traveled to a meeting together. Colleagues were in the front seat discussing the race for the governor. As often is the case when people talk politics there was a lot of cynicism and making fun of the candidate they didn’t agree with. What they did not know was that they were talking about a relative of mine.
I don’t think it was malicious, even though it had a mean-spirited side to it. And I think I would have been OK had things stayed with politics. Perhaps I should have come clean to them – I never did. I wasn’t embarrassed; I was intrigued to hear the assumptions they were making about the family, the up-bringing, the parents. As I overheard from the back seat I was thinking of all the times I had done the same thing. The jokes, the cynicism that can border on self-righteousness, the extent to which we will go to not only question the politics but also to undermine the person.
Pope Francis spoke with incredible clarity to the US Congress. I listened to every word; and I’ve listened since then to all the media parsing. But the urtext of his message lacks cynicism. All the “swipes” Francis supposedly was taking at this party or that ideology – I didn’t hear that in his message, neither in its content nor in its tone. He didn’t ridicule Mr. Trump, praise President Obama or canonize Sen. Sanders. The shots Pope Francis took were not from the gun of partisanship; they were from a heart and spirit that understand the power of compassion.
I am convicted both by what he said and how he said it.
My colleagues in the front seat were talking about “the candidate” and the small-minded home from which he must have come. But they weren’t present as the children talked things over with the parents. They didn’t see the agonizing as “the candidate” was growing up, discussing future plans with his father, weighing the odds and struggling to do the right thing. Disagree with the politics; don’t castigate the person. I recall seeing this candidate talking to his Dad out on the dock in the late afternoon and I know for a fact the love in that family was not partisan. It grew out of faith, out of an optimistic hope. There wasn’t a lot of bravado to this crew, but there was an oversized amount of generosity.
My colleagues in the front seat had no idea when their cynicism crossed the line and became hurtful.
There’s a story that Father Flynn tells in the movie “Doubt”. It’s about a woman who talked about another person in a gossiping way and then felt guilty about it. She went to confession and asked the priest, old Father O’Rourke: “Is it a sin to gossip, Father?” As she confessed her sin she got up to leave when the priest said Not so fast! For her penance she was to go home, go to the roof top with a pillow and a knife and slit open the pillow. She was to report back to confession the following week.
She did as instructed and returned to Father O’Rourke. “What happened to the pillow,” asked the priest. “The feathers were strewn all over with the wind,” replied the woman. “Go now,” commanded the priest, “and collect all the feathers.” The woman protested: “Father, that would be impossible! There is no way I could ever find them and get them all back!” “And that,” said Father O’Rourke, “is the problem with gossip!”
We are in for a very long presidential campaign and there will be great temptation, no matter which side of the aisle you think yourself to be, to be extremely cynical. Pope Francis pointed us to some higher ground when it comes to political discourse. There has to be a way to vigorously call into question a person’s politics without disrespecting or demeaning them as a person.
Let’s see if we can find that way together.