The day after Pope Francis left I was listening to the car radio and was struck by the comparison made between the Pop’s visit and a Manny Pacquiao fight. It focused on the zero crime rate during both events.
The commentators and the person they were interviewing were discussing how the parallels showed that, when people felt positive and proud, they did no evil.
Is there something more to feeling positive and proud that makes us feel good and thus avoid the bad? In this momentary “break” from criminal activity, I wonder if the experience has a prolonged effect.
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the difference between a Pacquiao fight and the Pope’s five-day visit experiences; and the call of Christ to repentance as he begins his ministry: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
We are familiar with the call to repentance as this is a major theme of Lent. Various traditions and religions integrate the act of repentance as a necessary stage or act to merit salvation.
It is a turning back to God, the goodness in us which is God-given. In more secular language, it is a turning back to our authentic self.
Story of repentance
Let me refer to another Gospel narrative to illustrate repentance that leads to a long-term effect, and thus illustrates its spiritual nature that leads to action or living with choice as the intervening or enabling process.
In Luke 19: 1-10, we have the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. This is a beautiful story of repentance and conversion that inspires us to discover our own story.
It begins with a desire that makes us search for something missing that unsettles us. Unconsciously we try to fill the empty space.
We watch TV or movies, play games, go out, drink, etc. When the restlessness is not stilled, we go into a crisis, or a conscious searching commences.
This is what happened to Zacchaeus. As we read in Luke 19: 3, he “was seeking to see who Jesus was.” There was a desire for Christ or a curiosity or attraction. Zacchaeus acts on the desire and climbs a tree to “see Christ more clearly.”
Because of this, Christ responds to the desire and effort. He calls Zacchaeus down and stays in his house; Zacchaeus, in turn, welcomes Christ with joy.
The people malign Zacchaeus and Christ. To this challenge, Zacchaeus responds with an act of repentance and atones for sins he may have committed. He does not rebuke his critics, but he turns to Christ to whom he offers his act.
Moment of commitment
The philosopher Martin Buber and servant leadership guru Robert Greenleaf call this a moment of commitment. At this moment, we no longer are controlled by external factors—what other people will say, image, advancement in the game, success, wealth, recognition, etc.—nor are we ruled by instincts and appetites.
At this moment we make a conscious choice. It is a choice to create a “new us” or to renew our authentic self.
In a sense, it is not so much what we turn away from, but what we turn back to or towards that spells the difference between a momentary “high” and a long-term effect.
As we turn back to or towards the authentic self, a conscious choice or commitment is what renews. We are set free of external factors and our instincts (or unbridled desires and passions, now redirected towards the commitment).
We overcome a sense of victimhood and reconnect with the vision of our authentic self, the inherent goodness and meaning and mission that I believe is in all of us at birth—what Parker Palmer refers to as our “birthright gifts.”
We can create a better future for our self, but at this point one also senses that it is not just for oneself; not just the “I” or the “me.”
It evolves into Buber’s “I-thou” and, ultimately, it brings us home to “the new heavens and the new earth”—home in the Kingdom of God.
Chilean philosopher and biologist Francisco Varela writes that commitment can come only from someone who has changed a stance towards life, from resignation, to possibility, or what we referred to earlier as overcoming the sense of victimhood.
This is the choice the young students from Tacloban who lost family, friends and possessions chose to be: survivors, not victims.
Attraction to the good
Varela continues building on this stance of possibility and explicitly says this shifts to the spiritual realm because it is now the human heart that is involved and in charge.
The authentic self naturally gets attracted to other authentic selves. It is an attraction that is free of external factors and instincts. It is an attraction to what is inherently true, good and beautiful.
This is Varela’s “authentic presence” to one another, to other beings living out their authentic self. This is what we referred to in previous articles as living in sacred space.
This is what Christ proclaims, “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and “behold the new heavens and the new earth.”
Moving things forward
The Inquirer ran an article during the Pope’s visit entitled the “Francis Effect.” This term was often repeated during and after the days of his visit. Now we must move it forward and make it renew our reality.
Fr. Thomas Berry, C.P., a highly esteemed cultural historian and eco-theologian—one of the leaders of the Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. school of thought that espoused the theory of evolution that is evolving towards the Omega Point, Christ—gives a description of a leader that is rather appropriate to describe Pope Francis’ leadership.
Berry writes: “… true leadership is about creating a domain in which we continually learn and become more capable of participating in our unfolding future. A true leader thus sets the stage on which predictable miracles, synchronistic in nature, can—and do—occur.”
This is the key difference between a Pope Francis and a Manny Pacquiao event. The latter gives us a moment of pride and hope; perhaps some stories of hope and success are inspired, but it does not create a domain.
The former creates a domain. In fact, it made us live in that domain for a few days.
And the challenge now—the hope and the prayer—is that, as in most life-changing experiences we have had as a people, a nation and a church the past years, the past decades, it will not go the way of Camelot. We hope, this time around, we will not tell future generations that during the days Pope Francis was here in January 2015, “for one brief shining moment there was Camelot.”
The days of Pope Francis’ visit were a shining moment that made us aware of the desire in so many of us for the good, for a better future, the hope to encounter God. The hope and the possibility are once more given to us and we are assured it is within our reach and power to change ourselves and our world.
In all this, may we realize that we must transform this shining moment to a moment of commitment. Pope Francis came with the core proclamation of Christ that he echoes with joy: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”