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The pope's soft, surprising and radical whisper

It's about time. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has surveyed the haughty scolds in its ranks, noted their fixation on matters of sexual morality above all others and said enough is enough. I'm not being cheeky with this one-word response.

Hallelujah.

But it wasn't the particulars of Pope Francis' groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.

It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term "infallible" is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naive, worried that he'd been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.

What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.

And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.

That's what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.

I'm hardly the first to flag this pope's apparent humility or the fact that it extends beyond his preference for simple dress over regal costumes, for a Ford Focus over a papal chariot, for modest quarters over a monarch's suite. Less than two months ago, when he answered a question about gay priests with a question of his own — "Who am I to judge?" — the self-effacement in that phrase was widely and rightly celebrated. Was a pope really acting and talking like this? But Francis' tone so far is interesting not just as a departure for the church but as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It's out of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of self-esteem.

Humility has little place in the realm of social media, which is governed by a look-at-me ethos, by listen-to-me come-ons, by me, me, me. And humility is quaintly irrelevant to the defining entertainment genre of our time, reality television, which insists that every life is mesmerizing, if only in the manner of a train wreck, and that anyone is a latent star: the housewife, the hoarder, the teen mom, the tuna fisher. Just preen enough to catch an audience's eye. Just beckon the cameras close.

Politics is most depressing of all. It rewards braggarts and bullies, who muscle their way onto center stage with the crazy certainty that they and only they are right, while we in the electorate and the news media lack the fortitude to shut them up or shoo them away. They disgust but divert us, or at a minimum wear us down. Maybe we get the showboats we deserve.


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