This week I watched a small, elderly man bring the U.S. Congress to its knees. I knew I was witnessing history unfold and took this privilege seriously. Powerful men and women, responsible for running my country sat with undivided attention, while Pope Francis turned the stones of every conceivable social injustice he could possibly dig up, exposing all the dirt underneath: immigration, pollution, big business, child abuse, abortion, relationships, violence, and politics.
Critics have said he is a holy man using his spiritual power for political agendas. I say, if you've got it, flaunt it. Who else but a man of God would be qualified to lead the way to enlightened human behavior? He came to encourage all of us to recognize our collective conciousness as members of humanity, but act on the needs of individuals within our society and communities. As I sat there I was reminded of a religious event of my own.
I was raised a Roman Catholic and threatened with damnation, should I ever question my faith. Despite this I left the church as a young adult, never to return to organized religion. It just didn't work for me. I resisted being told how to act and think and always wondered how my religion was superior to other religions. If God loved us all, why was I better? Still, I appeased my family and went to church for traditional celebrations.
On what I thought would be an ordinary Wednesday morning, I joined my family for my father's memorial Mass. Catholics will "say a Mass" for the deceased and today was Pop's turn. As the Mass started, I watched with curiosity as a man collapsed in the front of the church and two other men dragged him back to the vestibule near the entrance. My Aunt Jessie's elbow came flying out of the side of her body directly into my rib cage. "You gotta go help," she commanded. I was four months out of nursing school.
"They got this," I replied, feeling slightly uncomfortable. I also knew how people could get in the way with rescue efforts and I did not want to interfere. Two seconds later, the elbow came out again. This time I listened to the elbow.
When I walked out to the vestibule I saw a dead man. Two men stood over him struggling to provide CPR. It was evident by their actions and my newly acquired nursing knowledge, what they were doing was not going to bring this man back. From somewhere inside my timid soul I began barking out orders. I stopped the men and we started over in a rhythmic effort. I watched the motions of the chest compressions, and the rescue breaths expanding the man's chest. His lips were blue and his face grey. I held his hand and then, miraculously, I could feel a pulse in his wrist with each compression. Oxygen from the rescue breaths began to flow through his body changing his face to a warm pink. We stepped back as the paramedics took over and with two shocks he was alive again.
By now Mass had concluded. The almost-widow sat on a folding chair nearby while parishioners attended to her needs. Finally the priest walked out, indifferent to the man being carried away on a gurney. I turned to him a little angry but mostly confused. "Why didn't you stop the Mass and call for assistance?" I asked.
His reply was simple, as if I should have known the answer. "Once the Mass is started, we can't stop."
"What are you talking about?" I continued. "A man's life is less important than Mass?" And since I was on a roll I blurted out, "And where is your emergency equipment? Other churches have oxygen and first aide kits for situations like this. Why don't we?"
His answer: "We've never done that."
On that day I left the Catholic religion forever. Any religious ritual that was more important than a man's life was not the religion for me. And let's face it, I had been headed in that direction for as long as I could remember so my heathen attitude was bound to catch up with me.
But more importantly, on that same day I witnessed two men making a difference. They cared about one individual while they turned away from what was acceptable religious behavior. In the process they changed a human life. Perhaps that's why I was so taken by Pope Francis and his message, remembering what can happen when we walk outside our comfort zone and find our own truth. Any act of charity is a form of love, whether it is directed to an individual or the entire planet.
My favorite parable is about the boy and the starfish. A boy is walking the beach when he sees it is covered with starfish, sure to die as the tide runs out to the sea. He stops and picks up one at a time returning them to the water. An old man walks by and begins to mock the boy's efforts, telling him he can't possibly save all those starfish. Without looking up from his mission, the boy throws another starfish into the water and replies, "Saved that one."