By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published April 24, 2008
I was glued to my TV last week, watching the pope. I saw his talk to the bishops, the stirring vespers service in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Masses in Nationals Park and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Benedict XVI’s sermons vividly revealed his brilliance and compassion, while his joy in seeing the crowds was clearly shown when he rolled down the bulletproof windows of his car to be more accessible to them.
These were so many big shining moments in his first papal visit to the United States, but one small incident brought me to tears.
It was during the offertory at the huge Mass in Nationals Park, when streams of people came forth to bring the gifts to the pope. There were religious brothers and sisters, a mother and father of nine children, a couple married 69 years and a group of disabled adults.
And quietly sitting at the bottom of the steps leading to the altar was a girl in a wheelchair, wearing a pink dress and with her hair neatly braided. She could not get up the steps, so the pope walked down, leaned over gently, blessed her and gave her a papal rosary.
The cameras didn’t show the expression on her face, but we could see her carefully studying the beads that were intertwined in her hands.
Pope Benedict’s gentle gesture seems exactly in keeping with the man who came to the United States to spread a message of hope. After all, it is not hard to imagine disabled people feeling at times a lack of hope, at least the everyday kind that blithely says, “Tomorrow will be better.”
For them, the supernatural hope of Jesus Christ would ring far more true. This hope does not promise rosy times on earth but an eternity of love with Him in heaven.
There were other graceful moments of love, which involved Msgr. Guido Marini, who is always at the pope’s side and who is in charge of papel liturgies at the Vatican.
He apparently also is in charge of the pope’s eyeglasses.
During the Masses, at the moments when the pope was required to read a homily or the Gospel, one could see Msgr. Marini gently handing Benedict the spectacles. This seems like a small matter, but if you rely on eyeglasses, you are well aware that the entire Mass would grind to a halt if the celebrant suddenly was unable to read.
All our lives are composed of countless moments of such little acts of love. The girl in the wheelchair surely has a mother who braided her hair ever so carefully on the day of the Mass.
The choirs at the outdoor Mass were so spotlessly attired, the men in white shirts and ties and the women in snowy blouses. It is easy to imagine mothers firing up steam irons earlier that morning to be sure each wrinkle in the garments would be obliterated. One can also picture the various fathers who helped fix the younger men’s ties.
The secular media have been running themselves ragged, analyzing every nuance of the pope’s speeches. Perhaps they were hoping he would make some huge announcement, some gigantic change in the faith that has sustained humanity since Christ first chose Peter as the rock.
But this kind of attentiveness to the wrong things shows the secular media can’t quite figure out who Benedict is. They may be confusing him with proud and rich celebrities who generally shun the little people of the world and exult in making big splashes in the public arena.
Benedict, though, as the successor of St. Peter, is attuned to hear the cries of the ones who so often are ignored and are rejects in the eyes of the world.
In a very telling interview with Raymond Arroyo of Eternal Word Television Network, President George W. Bush spoke of meeting the pope. When Arroyo asked Bush what he saw when he looked into the pope’s eyes, Bush didn’t hesitate for a second.
“God,” he replied.
This reply reminded me of how Mother Teresa was described years ago by someone who met her when she visited Atlanta: “You see Christ in her eyes.”
Christ shines forth in the eyes of people who have swept away the debris of their own egos to make room for love, mercy and humility.
I believe that girl in the wheelchair will always remember the way the pope blessed and greeted her. It was a small act of kindness, as tiny as the moment when the pope is handed his eyeglasses by the monsignor.
But in the end, these acts of love are the building blocks of the Catholic Church. When Christ asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?,” each time he told Peter to feed his sheep.
Pope Benedict XVI came to the United States to carry out that command. And to show us that the smallest acts of kindness create a flash of divine light that can illuminate the entire world.
Lorraine Murray’s new book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Artwork featured in the print edition is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.