During Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in September 2015, I was glued to my television. I found it inspirational to watch Pope Francis meet crowds wherever he went. I marveled at his ability to keep up with his exhausting schedule of back-to-back appearances. What intrigued me most about the Pope, however, was his willingness – his determination – to physically touch as many people as he could.
With tens of thousands of people clamoring to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis wherever he went, and given the mind-blowing task of keeping him safe from those who would hurt or kill him, each hand shake, each pat of a head, each hug, and each kiss from Pope Francis was a statement of his willingness to risk injury and death to accomplish something with each touch.
For believers, the Pope’s touch is likely seen as a conduit of the healing power of Jesus himself. This might explain the desperate attempt of so many to re-enact the biblical account of the hemorrhaging woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s cloak and received healing. If the healing power of Jesus could emanate from the cloak on His body, why couldn’t it manifest in the touch of the man who is a successor to Saint Peter?
But even non-believers and those without apparent need for healing seem intent on making physical contact with Pope Francis. So what, right? People climb over one another for the chance to hug, to shake hands with, or to take selfies with celebrities and political candidates. Is the desire to touch Pope Francis any different?
Because I’ve heard Pope Francis referred to as “The People’s Pope,” I can’t help but recall Princess Diana, “The People’s Princess,” who was criticized for breaking royal protocol by insisting on touching, hugging, and holding sick children, the elderly, the disabled, and people with AIDS. Is it mere coincidence that these two charismatic individuals, each with a place in history, share the intuition to touch people?
Having never been in the physical presence of any Pope, let alone Pope Francis, I can only guess at the following: People can sense Pope Francis’s strong desire to touch them, and they are drawn to this desire for connection because it symbolizes their desire to connect emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even spiritually with or without the construct of religion.
To whom or to what were all these people trying to connect? I’ll hazard another guess: Not church dogma; not religious canons; not catechism; not judgment; not condemnation; not disapproval. Perhaps these people – perhaps all of us – are drawn to simplicity; to freedom from want of excess and luxury; to humility enough to wash the feet of the poor, the sick, and the unwelcome; to a sincere empathy for pain and suffering; to understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, hope, and love.
We are taught that Pope Francis is the shepherd and we are the flock, but in my mind, he is the stringer of pearls, connecting us all to each other, creating a luminous strand that reaches toward the Divine.
© Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2015.