A few months ago I learned that Pope Francis was writing an encyclical and also a book, both dealing with the pandemic. When I told a friend of mine he said to me, “What can the pope say about the pandemic?” I cannot recall my response but I do recall thinking that the Holy Father could probably say a great deal about the pandemic. I was right. The encyclical “Fratelli tutti” and the book “Let Us Dream Together” are magnificent.
As I was reading them the thought occurred to me frequently that the world would be even more beautiful and more obviously “grace filled” if Pope Francis’ vision of the mystery of human existence was widely embraced, especially by world leaders. It is not just that the pope’s vision is beautiful, but that it is profoundly true and deeply rooted in God’s love for all people. If I were asked now what Pope Francis can tell us about the pandemic, I, at the risk of oversimplifying both the encyclical and the book, would say that he reminds us throughout both publications how much God loves us and that because of that love every person is special and sacred. For me, that those ideas come from Pope Francis makes them exceptionally powerful. They motivate me to do better.
As I prepared to write this series of columns, I wondered why I find the pope such a wonderful human being and such a great leader. I was frequently inspired by the writings and talks of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. However, I find Pope Francis’ vision special. How much of my enthusiasm for him is due to the simple acts of humility he performed in the first days of his pontificate I am not sure. I do know that reading his words both instructs me and inspires me.
I have written two books about the pope: “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” and “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty.” I wrote the books because I wanted to communicate Pope Francis’ vision to others. I wanted readers of the two books to experience something of the excitement and encouragement that I experience when I read the pope’s writings. Whatever is worthwhile in either of my books is due to Pope Francis.
I don’t know whether any readers were helped by my books, but I think that I profited greatly by writing them. A few years ago, a friend, a parishioner at the parish at which I celebrated Sunday Eucharists, told me she was going to Rome and was going to have a private audience with the Holy Father. She asked me if I would like her to give Pope Francis copies of the two books I had written about him. I said that would be wonderful even though I did not believe that the two books would ever reach the Holy Father’s hands.
On one of my trips to Rome I thought that I was going to be part of a private audience with the pope, who at that time was Pope John Paul II. Imagining a small group of perhaps 20 of us meeting with Pope John Paul II and each of us having the opportunity of speaking with him, I had planned to explain to the pope that I taught existential philosophy to seminarians because I knew that he had taught philosophy before becoming pope.
My “private audience” with the Holy Father was attended by about a thousand people. At that time a circus was performing in Rome and the circus attended my ”private audience.” At one point an elephant appeared on the stage with the pope. The elephant got closer to the Holy Father than I did!
To my amazement, my friend did give my two books to Pope Francis and now one of my prize possessions is a photo of Pope Francis looking at my books, which he is holding in his hands. In the photo, there is no sign of an elephant!
After pointing out many problems in the contemporary world, Pope Francis writes the following in “Fratelli tutti”: “I invite everyone to renewed hope for hope ‘speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independent of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, of an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fi ll our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love …
Hope is bold; it can look beyond personal convenience, the petty securities and compensations which limit our horizon, and it can open us up to grand ideals that make our life more beautiful and worthwhile.’ Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope.” (p. 29)
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.