True Community and the Pope

6:00:00 AMMartha Egan

Why do people flock to hear the pope? Why are they drawn to him when he travels? This question arose in my mind as just over a million people gathered to see Pope Francis in the U.S. On the news, one could see the Holy Father greeting thousands of people: politicians, dignitaries, families, homeless, the infirm, the poor, and the rich alike. It is intriguing that all these people fought the crowds to see the Holy Father, and yet half of them were probably not practicing Catholics. What is so attractive about the pope?  He is different than all other celebrities; he inspires real community.

The pope is not a typical public figure. Although he has achieved a sort of “celebrity” status, he holds that primarily because of his place as an international leader and peace keeper.The pope’s position is the Supreme Pontiff of Catholicism, yet he is respected by many different nations and religions everywhere. Especially in recent years, however, the papacy has been given a more personal role in the public square due to the media. Despite the pope’s historical influence and his more-modern popularity, people are drawn to him for some other reason.

Perhaps one reason people flock to the Holy Father is because he is a man of the people. He’s not a multimillionaire businessman famous for making money. The pope is a leader, famous for his success in bringing love and hope to the hearts and minds of everyone he encounters - from the rich to the poorest of the poor. However, the pope is also not just a social and political leader, telling people what they want to hear and making empty promises. The pope brings a message of charity to all people, as can be seen with Pope Francis’s dedication to the poor and handicapped. As he said to Congress: “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.” (1) The message of love is attractive to people, and so they are brought together with the pope. This “togetherness” reflects something deeper that people are pursuing.

Perhaps the underlying reason why so many millions of people flock to the pope has to do with their longing for community. In this culture of individuals and super-developed technology, the opportunity for human contact has waned, while the need for it has increased. Nowadays, it is much quicker and simpler to communicate through social media and technology. Even so, as great as the achievements of the smartphone are, we can miss the normal person-to-person interactions when we stare at a screen all day. As Aristotle says, human beings are social creatures, and so naturally come together in communities and seek relationships. There is a danger, however, of  artificial community. With the rise of social media and the like, human contact becomes substituted with a screen, and the seeming community is nothing but a sham. When the Holy Father arrives somewhere, he draws millions together, creating a unifying effect. People come from all over, and from incredibly different backgrounds, and yet they come as one people under the pope.

Why do they come? The pope offers so much more than apparent community.

Although the people’s longing for community is universal, there is also the danger of the anti-community. In his writings, Dietrich von Hildebrand discussed community during the time of Nazism. Whereas the pope creates a sense of positive unity and belonging-together, the rise of Nazism gave way to a warped nationalism that, while seemingly drawing people together, created dis-unities. Hildebrand wrote: “The first characteristic of nationalism is thus a collective egoism that disavows respect and concern for foreign nations and evaluates the rights of one’s own nation according to criteria different from those applied to other nations.”(2) The dangers of this type of nationalism include creating a false community which thrives only on its comparison to others. For instance, with Nazism, citizens became so focused on the “superior” German culture, that they rejected all others with harsh criticism. This anti-community, then, creates divisions between its people and other communities; real unity of peoples cannot be founded on hate. Therefore, what is really lacking in the anti-community of nationalism is love, which can only be found in true community. In comparing nationalism to genuine patriotism, Hildebrand wrote “Genuine patriotism and nationalism are as different from each other as the true, divinely ordained love of self is from egoistic self-love.” (3)The selfish nature of nationalism inevitably causes it to fold in on itself, whereas the sacrificial love of the members of a true community helps it grow stronger.

Why are millions of people coming to see the pope? Perhaps it is that they long for true community founded on sacrificial love between its members. This message of love is emphasized in the teaching and example of the Holy Father, and so people are drawn to him. Unlike other forms of artificial or anti-community, the pope’s visits create a true community; one founded on love. As Pope Francis said to Congress, “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” (4) The call to true community is universal, and starts with the members working together in a spirit of love and giving.

  1. Pope Francis, Speech to Congress.
  2. Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 249.
  3. Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 248.
  4. Pope Francis, Speech to Congress.

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