My grandparents were disgusted with me when my first, second, and third girlfriends were Catholics.
“What do they cook?” my grandmother asked.
Cooking being the great differentiator in religion. She even said, “Goulash?” Like it was a curse.
Many years later, after a lot of grief, I sat in St. Patrick’s in NYC, praying for money. “please God, make my life better by giving me money”.
It didn’t matter to me that it was a church. I was so scared I didn’t know what to do.
I would do anything, even pray to a god I didn’t believe in, in a house of worship that I didn’t feel welcome in, and asking for something that prayer was never intended for.
Someone asked me yesterday. “what do you feel strongly about?”
I said, “nothing”.
He said “that’s a strong response. Don’t you worry about death?”
I said, “Why waste any part of today worrying about something that will happen later?”
Today Pope Francis arrives at St. Patrick’s in NYC. My guess is his motives will be loftier than mine. But I don’t know. Maybe he wants money also.
So I did some research. God or not, religion or not, Catholic or not, I try to learn from everyone.
Here’s what I love about Pope Francis on this holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur. And I don’t “believe” in the sanctity of either.
A) HE LIVES IN A STUDIO
When Pope Francis traveled to the Vatican for his inauguration he stayed in a hotel that he paid for himself.
And rather than move into the lavish 12-bedroom residence all prior popes live in, he chose a small studio with no staff.
Rather than mimic him, it’s interesting to just ask “why?” and think about it.
What is the example he wants to live by?
Pope Francis wrote letters to Barack Obama and Raul Castro, encouraging them to get together.
That’s why we now have relations one again with Cuba, after 50 years.
Biologically we’re one species. But politically, for thousands of years we’ve divided up by false and artificial borders.
Imagine a world with no borders. Where trade and innovation flourishes. Where friendship and kindness can transcend ethnic and religious differences.
A world with no more arguing on daytime talk shows.
C) HE TOOK A SELFIE
See the photo. A bunch of teenagers approached him. Asked him for a photo. And they took a selfie.
He doesn’t put himself on a pedestal (he drives a Kia instead of the previous “popemobile”). He wants to show that we all have the potential for direct happiness.
During the time of Jesus, there was no Pope obviously.
In fact, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus was speaking to the Jewish layman of the time. But now he might even say, “the choice for freedom is within you, and not anyone else.”
And that’s why the Pope takes a selfie.
Quote from him: “Depicting the Pope as a sort of Superman, a star, is OFFENSIVE to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”
D) HE MAKES PHONE CALLS
Two years ago, a young woman was pressured by her husband to have an abortion. She said, “no”, and got divorced.
She was depressed. She wrote the Pope.
A few weeks later the phone rang. She picked it up.
“Hello,” the other side said, “it’s Pope Francis.” He comforted her and then baptized the newborn when it was born.
He regularly makes calls to the people who write him, shedding the layers of bureaucracy that have existed for almost 2000 years in the Vatican.
How often we forget the immense benefits a simple touch makes.
The most impressive display of beauty is not the Sistine Chapel, with God reaching to grasp the first man… but a man reaching out to touch a single woman who needed help.
How many of us do that simple act, the creation of art and beauty, every day? I don’t. But I should.
D) HE HATES THE NEWS
“The media only writes about the sinners and the scandals, but that’s normal, because a tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows.”
The media sells subscriptions. But every day we have a choice. To focus on what is growing in our lives, or the negativity and fear that try to bring us down.
Another quote: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
E) THE INSIGNIFICANCE OF MAN
There are something like 8 million species on Earth. We always think of ourselves as somehow “king” of the food chain.
Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. After all, we made the definition of the phrase “food chain” so why not make ourselves king of it.
Certainly many species are not even aware of us.
Nor is it so great that we are supposedly, “intelligent”. How many high IQ people are truly happy and free and live every day with well-being.
Francis’ quote: “No one can grow if he does not accept his smallness.”
F) HE TEACHES PEOPLE TO CHOOSE THEMSELVES
We know that happiness is not related to money. Countless studies have shown this.
Often it’s related to our mindset. To the choices we make. Again, when someone asked me why not worry about tomorrow, there is no real answer. Why should I?
Francis quote: “This is the struggle of every person: be free or be a slave.”
Even if you are stuck at the bottom of solitary confinement in jail, you can still choose to be free inside your spirit.
This is not self-help BS. This is your choice: do you be miserable or do you root yourself in your inner freedom? Why choose to be miserable?
And yet, often when I wake up in the morning, all my past memories suck me in as quickly as possible and it’s an effort not to say “ugh”.
Then I'm a slave again. It’s a practice every day to choose freedom.
G) HE SECRETLY READS MY EMAILS
His quote: “Living together is an art. It’s a patient art, it’s a beautiful art, it’s fascinating.”
How does he know that Claudia and I recently had a horrible argument.
It was so painful. I couldn’t even function for days. We don’t argue a lot and when we do I feel like my heart bursts open.
Do you ever feel like that? Like you argue with someone and the only way out of it is to crawl into a cave. To disappear and not even think until the storm seems to pass.
But it does pass. And you figure your way through the maze to find a greater intimacy.
I don’t brag about it. I hate arguing. I don’t ever want to. I’d honestly rather have less intimacy in my life than argue to find greater intimacy.
But when it’s there I do feel like we just made a work of art.
H) HE DOESN’T TEACH FEAR
For all I know he is an atheist. I can’t find one quote from him about hell or damnation.
In my view (and I may be wrong, it doesn’t matter to me) he uses the word “god” as a placeholder for “well-being”.
Many studies show that the key to contentment and confidence is three things:
Growing competence in a pursuit you love
Strengthening every day the relationships around you
Increasing your freedom of choices3
Quote from the Pope: “If we start without confidence, Already we have lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”
I) HE THINKS LIKE THE DALAI LAMA
A friend of mine who is a believer in Tibetan Buddhism and has spent much time with the Dalai Lama once told me this: “when you are with the Dalai Lama you feel as if he loves you the way a mother loves her baby.”
Quote from Francis: “To protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope. It is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope!”
J) LIVE BY EXAMPLE INSTEAD OF PREACHING
Imagine you’ve had a hard day at your construction site. You finally get a break, sit down with your friends, and break out your lunch.
A man walks by. He’s tired also from his job. He leaves the crowd surrounding him and asks you and your friends if he can join you for lunch.
He pulls out his lunchbox also and starts eating and talking to you.
He lives in a simple studio, drives a simple car, and refuses all gifts anyone gives him.
He’s the Pope and this happened.
Quote: “These two criteria are like the pillars of true love: deeds, and the gift of self.”
He doesn’t just say it. He lives it.
It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish on the holiest day of the year. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, or Catholic.
Pope Francis lives a message. I wish every day I could try to live closer to that same message.
K) HIS NAME IS HIS ENTIRE BELIEF SYSTEM
He chose the name Francis when he became Pope because of Francis of Assisi. How come?
“Francis of Assisi loved, helped and served the needy, the sick and the poor; he also cared greatly for creation.”
To me, this is the entire belief system of Pope Francis. He did not use the words “god” or “jesus” or “spirit” above.
This is all anyone needs to transform a life of fear and stress and anxiety and regret into a life of well-being and happiness.
Sometimes I think I’m not a good person. Sometimes I look at people on the street and hate them for no reason. Sometimes I’m not as good as I could be to family or friends.
But I’m trying to be better. I hope every day I can wake up and remind myself of Francis’s exact words above.
“To care greatly for creation” is the essence of choosing yourself instead of letting anyone else do it for you.
Instead of being held back by judgments or anger or fear or regret.
Maybe one day I will be able to live in a studio, call people who need help, eat lunch with strangers, take selfies with whoever.
For now, I write blog posts. And maybe tomorrow I’ll die.