Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

A funny challenge—and a serious cause

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published September 4, 2014  | En Español

“The Archbishop is all wet!” While that might very well be the considered opinion of some of our faithful, it was certainly the loud cheer of the youth group from Our Lady of the Assumption Parish last week as I accepted their invitation for the ice bucket challenge that has so captured the public’s attention over the past month or so. Like so many popular activities, the purpose of the challenge is often overlooked in view of the funny facial expressions and reactions of the people who get wet. The activity was originally started to raise awareness of our need to respond to the ALS disease and those afflicted by it, and it has brought a new level of attention to eradicating that disease.

Such activities are often filled with fun and good humor as school principals occasionally challenge their students to read a certain number of books during the course of a school year, and in return, when that challenge has been met, the principal will perform some silly feat in recognition of their achievement. Of course, the real winners are the kids whose reading skills are increased.

Parish festivals that have dunk-tanks often invite prominent local people to agree to be soaked in return for financial contributions that benefit the parish or a special parish project. Our children will often volunteer to shave their heads in support of a classmate who has lost his or her hair during chemotherapy. This gesture is always intended to comfort and reassure the young patient. Every winning coach probably anticipates getting a Gatorade shower as an expression of the gratitude and exuberant joy of a winning team. People of all ages will do and endure ridiculous public activities for higher motives than may sometimes be clearly recognized. The success of such activities is based upon our sense of humor. Some folks (usually those who lack a good sense of humor) might suggest that such behavior compromises the dignity of one’s office or position.

Our recent popes have challenged and done much to overcome that opinion. Recent popes have increasingly revealed the humanity of those who hold the office of Peter within the Church—even if their handlers have often tried to conceal their humanity.

As I have written before, there is much evidence that Pope Pius XII kept canaries in the papal apartment as a hobby and source of personal joy. Pope St. John XXIII occasionally stole away to secluded parts of the Vatican to smoke a cigar or two away from the incessant cameras. Bishop David Talley has a photograph of Pope Paul VI (in a bathrobe of all attire) as he arose in the middle of the Roman night to watch the July 1969 landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. Pope St. John Paul II would often don the headgear of native peoples that he encountered in his travels. Pope Benedict XVI did not conceal his affection for cats and might even now be keeping a couple of kittens in his retirement residence. And Pope Francis has catapulted papal humor and humanity to the absolute delight of young people who take selfies with him, sometimes as he wears a red rubber clown nose.

Even youngsters will seize the stage with Pope Francis and dare to sit on the papal chair during an interview with this pope. Pope Francis has revealed to the entire world that this pope has a good and well-developed sense of humor. None of those revelations have compromised the dignity of the office so much as they have secured a reverence and respect for the man who holds the office. Indeed, I suggest, popes become even more cherished and revered as they reveal their humanity and their joy in living with the people they serve.

The ice bucket challenge has brought many public figures a cold shower, but I also suspect we have not damaged our dignity so much as we have proven ourselves to be people who participate in an important cause and reveal both our humanity and our good humor—both of which are priceless and indispensable components of our office of leadership and governance.

I love the kids who dared to challenge me, and I think they loved the fact that I said yes to their challenge!