Among the traditional titles given to the Pope, Pontifex Maximus must be among the least graceful and most obscure. It translates into English as ‘Greatest Bridge Builder’. Pope Francis, the current holder of this office, has frequently spoken of his preference for bridges that unite over walls that divide. Nonetheless, it was Benedict XVI, the first Pope to tweet, who chose @pontifex as the Twitter handle he and his successors would use.
Regardless of any claims to doctrinal infallibility, nobody is immune to criticism. Benedict garnered more complaints from the left, while Francis gets attacked from the right. Regardless of personalities, priorities, or preferences though, each assumed the office of ‘Bridge Builder’ according to his own understanding and limitations. If the human leader of the Catholic Church places such great value in building bridges, I would suggest that all Catholics consider how we might be called to do so in our own situations.
This past week, I was a guest panelist at a leadership conference for Catholic religious orders of men in the United States. Although the group has a generally liberal reputation, great effort has been made to ensure that more conservative congregations such as the Legionnaires of Christ are also active and influential participants. This is not mere tokenism however, as the board of the conference recognizes the diversity of voices in the Church and wishes to continue reaching out to welcome and include a number of groups that continue to self-exclude. This kind of bridge-building can quickly become complicated… reaching out to include more divergent voices will certainly increase unity among different groups, but it also promises a more contentious version of unity than if each voice remains in its own echo chamber.
The mainstream is very aware of societal division these days, but are we actually any more divided as a nation than we were 60 years ago? The divisions may simply fall in different places, and the assaults on human life and dignity that particularly afflicted marginalized groups are no longer as easy to ignore. Voices rise up now not primarily because of new problems but because people are sick and tired of being sick and tired of age-old injustices. Maybe we are just starting to realize that we aren’t quite as good as we once had thought we were, and that hatred has not yet been banished after all. Part of this increased awareness may be based on new sensitivities and greater empathy, and part is based on louder voices. Regardless, many of us only began to recognize how great the chasms between us are once we get to work trying to construct bridges to unite us.
Compassionate action and attentive listening can haltingly bridge the gaps between individuals and between groups. Research can help us bridge the gap between now and the past; deliberate dreaming can help us bridge the gap between the present and future. On the spiritual level, communion among all people as well as between the human and the divine may be understood as a bridge so comprehensive that it brings you to see that in stretching toward the other side, we ultimately reach back to ourselves as well: the gap in between was only ever a distortion refracted by the jagged edge of a broken mirror.
Today, Marists in the USA celebrate a special bridge in particular. After three years of initial formation, Bro. Luis Ramos is finally professing first vows. As this event serves to bridge different phases of his life and ministry, I look forward to seeing how he continues to act as a bridge to bring people together as his own path continues to unfold before him.
The “ear candy” this week is actually a detour into musical theater with a classic number from Oklahoma! that makes an appeal to harmony between feuding social groups. Maybe it is a bit simplistic but, then again, so are we. This week’s “brain food” is an article from the Washington Post describing how a father and his son were protected by neighbors who intervened on his behalf during an attempted ICE detention. This incident can be seen as a parable of unity or as one of division… Regardless of how one interprets this particular ink blot, what is the next step in bridge-building that it calls for?
Ear Candy: “The Farmer and the Cowman” by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Brain Food: “’We Stuck Together Like Neighbors Are Supposed To’: A Community Thwarts a Father’s ICE Arrest” by Antonia Noori Farzan
Come back next Saturday for a new post!