by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The first section of Pope Francis’s wonderful little book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future is entitled “See”. That is, not only look at what is happening to each and all of us alive today but “see it”, understand it. The difference is crucial. We look at persons and events all the time, but we do not always see them. By way of example, the Holy Father tells of little blind children who ask “to see” him by touching his face. They “see” even though they cannot “look”. Other ways of describing this important distinction are: observing vs. engaging, being spectators vs. participants, passive vs active.
On a personal note, I had the experience of looking without seeing during several of my first years in South America. As pastor of a large parish in the city of Lima, I felt very good about our ministries there, that it was a progressive community and quite popular, doing good charitable work especially for the poor of the area. One day after about five years of enjoying this mindset, a leading diocesan priest made the startling comment to me that “you are just ‘fooling around’ here”. He went on to explain that while our charitable ministries were nice and quite well thought of, we were not addressing the underlying causes for the enormous chasm between our fairly prosperous parishioners and the poor people in the area. We had been looking but not seeing!
Pope Francis is continually inviting us to join him in seeing what the human family is facing as we slowly emerge from the darkness of the coronavirus. In this early section of Let Us Dream, the Holy Father goes into great detail about the possibilities as well as the obstacles which lie before humanity at this crucial moment in history.
What the Pope is doing is an essential component of “seeing”, a detailed social analysis of our current situations. Social analysis in this case means reflecting deeply and prayerfully on what is going on around us, what has been the “old normal”, and assessing its underlying causes. He demonstrates that any “new normal” will depend on such analyses – seeing – if we are ever to change.
Part of the Pope’s analysis mentions several obstacles to what he envisions for the post-Covid era. They are worth thinking about as a kind of personal and societal examination of conscience. He speaks, for example, of narcissism, discouragement, and pessimism; of “existential myopia” (that is, defensively selecting what we want to see); of indifference, which he calls “so-whatism”. In laying out these roadblocks to honest social analysis and action, Francis typically cites close-to-home examples from his own experiences as pastor. He mentions seeing the picture of a well-dressed lady emerging from a high-end Italian restaurant and ignoring the pathetic woman begging in the doorway; he tells of asking parents what is wrong with the sick children they bring for his blessing and concludes that their frequent answers, “an unusual medical condition”, point to an infirm human ecology. The experience cited above of being touched by blind children who want to “see” the Pope is another example of Francis’s connecting the particular with the general, concrete experiences with social realities, using ordinary, daily occurrences to highlight generalized situations.
Finally, Pope Francis addresses all of humanity’s current problems and challenges to their solutions with hope. He clearly has the grace of that strong virtue which, far from a wishy-washy feeling that maybe things will get better, is a strong, faith-filled trust that in the words of Zacharias in the New Testament:
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet on the way to peace”. (Luke 1:78-79)
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.