Last Friday and Saturday, I had the opportunity to spend time with friends in Philadelphia while Pope Francis visited for the World Meeting of Families. I am fortunate to have a few friends in Center City who live in an apartment building right near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Art Museum where much of the festivities took place. It was a really fun and interesting experience. I enjoyed being with the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, and neighboring and far-away U.S. states. It was also a surreal experience to see all the roads closed in the city, and no cars. People were free to walk and bike everywhere without hindrance.
It felt kind of like the Netherlands!
It was fun biking around the city on Saturday morning with a couple thousand people. I also thought it was hilarious to see people dressed up in pope outfits, complete with the papal hats. People cheered as we biked through their neighborhoods as if we had accomplished something important.
After the bike ride, my friends and I walked to the Ben Franklin Bridge which was open to pedestrians. It was pretty cool to walk across the bridge the reaches to New Jersey, without the car traffic and tolls.
While we were there, groups of people marched into Philly. Here’s a clip of a group from the New Jersey Diocese.
This led us to Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Saturday evening concerts and papal address. Not sure how many were actually there, but certainly we were not alone!
As we made our way as close as we could to the stage, we saw rows and rows of porta-potties–perhaps more than we saw people?
Of course, we had to pass through one of the security checkpoints. It took less time than it usually takes in the airport. People were nice. We laughed and passed though without incident. Of course, others who tried to pass the checkpoints on the other side of the Parkway [closer to City Hall] were not so lucky. A bit busier!
Once on the Parkway, somehow we were close enough to see this. Apparently, the Pope is fast. Or at least, his little white golf cart is.
We stayed to hear musicians like the Fray and Aretha Franklin perform. Then, the Pope gave his address. More later on that.
Now give me a moment to reflect on this experience via this story in the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark’s Gospel, following Jesus is about following the Jesus way. Here we see a scene in which those who follow the way are contrasted with those who don’t. But it’s not what we might assume. John, one of Jesus’ disciples, claims that there are some people who are not following “them” as opposed to Jesus or the way. Obviously, the disciples can easily forget that it’s actually not about them. Also, John is complaining about people doing something [i.e. exorcising a demon] that they themselves could not do. And John’s comments are ill-timed, because Jesus had just dropped the inclusive teaching about welcoming children. Now John and the other disciples want to exclude, claiming that “those others” were not one of them?
Jesus’ response is pretty clear:
Stop criticizing people who are actually trying to do the same thing we are. Who is not against us is for us.
For Jesus, even a simple act of kindness like giving a cup of water to someone is enough to be part of the way—part of Jesus’ team.
But then Jesus gets mad and is quoted as saying some pretty harsh things to those [like John and the disciples and anyone else] who get in the way of the inclusive, welcoming nature of the reign of God. In fact, anyone who causes “little ones” [i.e. those who are marginalized, forgotten, pushed down, persecuted] to fall will be in HUGE trouble. Cue the awful image of a large millstone around your neck as you are thrown into the sea to drown.
And then we get into body parts. The hand, the foot, the eye. If any of these cause someone to fall away, cut them off, thrown them out.
The word hell is not appropriately translated. It should be more like Gehenna which is the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. It’s a place where child sacrifices were made long ago, before Jesus’ time. That place was a symbol of death and destruction—a real place with no pitchforks, devils in red suits, or fires.
Frankly, Jesus uses such strong imagery because people were really divided–separated by social class, religion, and customs. And even people who were trying to do something compassionate or good might get criticized by others simply because of their particular religious or political affiliation.
So Jesus adds salt to a wound, but it is meant to heal:
Being salted with fire is all about healing. First century medicine utilized salt and fire to heal physical wounds. But in this case, the healing is mental, spiritual, and social. And it also leads to peace.
In any positive and impactful social movement, people outside of the “movement catch on and participate in their own way. This should always be affirmed. In fact, in my opinion, the only thing stopping religions from cooperating around the world are the people who are the “insiders” in each tradition. They put up barricades and roadblocks, like I saw this past weekend in Philly. They don’t affirm other traditions, even when they do good in the world. They hold tightly to their theologies and ideologies and prejudices. No cooperation happens.
I’m not Catholic. And I certainly don’t think that one person, i.e. Pope Francis, is more important or that his words are necessarily more special than others. But when someone or a group of people strive for justice, compassion, and peacemaking–I don’t care what religion they claim, or if they claim no religion.
They’re on my team if they care about those who are marginalized. I’m with them if they keep their saltiness but also accept and affirm the saltiness of others. We’re all living on this planet together. Being at peace with each other means swallowing pride and admitting that no one gets it right.
We have the opportunity and responsibility as people to join with those around us, not just because they claim the same religion or because they think like us– but because we care about humanity, this world, and recognize the pain we cause each other.
What I saw and experienced in Philly during the Pope’s visit was a large group of people who simply wanted to connect. Religion took a backseat. Politics hovered over us, threatening to distract us. But in the end, it was an “all-in” moment.
In his seemingly spontaneous address on Saturday, Pope Francis spoke about love and family. “In the family there are indeed difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love,” “Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty and overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love can overcome.”
I’d like to think that he defines family more loosely than the Catholic Church does. I’d like to believe that he defines family as the great big human family–not narrowly defined as a mom, dad, and kids. Pope Francis’ past comments seem to reflect a more compassionate and accepting view of same sex couples, gay and lesbian folk, and transgender people. Likewise, this pontiff has reached out verbally and otherwise to atheists and people of other religions. And he has expressed great sorrow and pain over the culture of child abuse and deceit that has plagued various dioceses.
I won’t agree with most of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic tradition. But that is less important. For I do think that hatred among any of us is only destructive and distracting. As a human family, we need to love each other, and that is unifying. But it will mean accepting and affirming our unique, salty selves and doing the same for all others. In this way we can strive for peace and be at peace in ourselves.
And woe to any of us who try to undermine anyone else who is doing just and compassionate work. May we love each other as we are, may we find ways to cooperate for common good, and may it lead to peace.
My final thoughts after a full weekend.
Hatred is destructive & distracting. Love builds and heals. May we reflect this in our cooperation and in our accepting of all people.