The Papal Visit and the Road to Jericho


As the President and his family have traveled abroad this week, as much focus has been on the women travelling with him, the first lady and daughter, as on affairs of state. From the moment the group de-planed in Riyadh, reporters discussed Melania and Ivanka’s hair covering choices and what Melania’s outfits might be trying to convey. Then, on Tuesday, a Washington Post columnist wrote that Melania and Ivanka were setting examples for the world about powerful women.

What was that definition of female power exactly? As I interpreted it, the message was be beautiful, dress exquisitely, and…be silent. Then you will be admired much like beautiful objects are everywhere. Unless you are an art historian who knows better, beautiful objects have no messy pasts, no complicated presents, no opinions or expertise, and a future in which time stands still. Not so powerful after all.

Then, there were the hand slap moments in which The First Lady appeared to rebuff her husband’s hand holding offers. Whether this was real or clever video editing, I have no idea. Perhaps the strong internet reaction was in part because she appeared to be an actor versus an object in her life…

Even as I tracked these gendered aspects of the trip, I was waiting hopefully for the main event: the President’s audience with Pope Francis. What would their conversation be like? Could the Pope influence this President in ways town halls, intelligence advisors, and the Congressional Budget Office have not? I was holding my breath.

Pope Francis loves the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 37), a Bible story that has captivated me since childhood. This parable is the Pope’s answer to questions that vex. What should our attitude be to our immigrant neighbors? How do we treat our enemies? What do we do when we are scared of someone who is different than we are? Five years old or fifty, peasant or president, Christian or not, the parable provides clear and powerful guidance.

  • First, we notice suffering without judging the sufferer.
  • Next, we change our plans so that we can help.
  • We bind the sufferer’s wounds as best we can, even when we think the sufferer is our enemy.
  • We use our resources to make sure they are safe.
  • We act with compassion even on dangerous roads.
  • We act with love, even when, indeed particularly when, we are afraid.

Pope Francis follows this example. He washes the feet of refugees and prisoners. Surely an audience with such a person could transform anyone.

But I was watching for the wrong thing, a transformation. I was forgetting that the Samaritan never knew what became of the person he helped on the Jericho road. The Samaritan’s actions were important because they transformed him, not because they transformed the injured man. The Pope gave the President art that featured an olive branch, a symbol of peace, forgiveness, perhaps even an offer of friendship.  He gave the President his point of view in the form of an encyclical, using the logic and language of the spirit to discuss climate change. And then he spoke to the First Lady, engaging in what was reported as a cute joke or a light interchange, asking whether she was feeding the President too much dessert. Specifically, the Pope asked if she was feeding him too much “potica,” a rich cake served on special occasions in Slovenia, her home country.

Remember, this Pope is from Argentina. Perhaps potica is a regular dessert served at the Vatican. But my guess is he took some time to think of how he might acknowledge the First Lady and treat her as a person versus the object that she is to the rest of the world. In that small moment, by referencing her home culture and language, he acknowledged so much that her beauty and style cover up: a complicated a past, a different heritage, a present that is not easy to manage, an uncertain future. He gave her the tools that he has to help her on her journey: a rosary and a blessing. He was the Samaritan.

Two days ago, I sat with colleagues from multiple disciplines talking about ways to adapt and enhance some training modules we are working on for the helping professions. We observed that trainees want a cookbook: “What do I do if x,y,z happens in a clinical encounter? What do I say if the patient says, ‘abc?’ Such questions skirt the central one: “Who am I when I encounter someone who suffers?” Pope Francis answers in words and in example. Be the Samaritan. Notice. Avoid judgment. Stop to help even if you’re afraid. Use your tools for good. Embed your actions in compassion. Act with love.

Pope Francis says it best. Watch him here.


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