They pushed in. Necks lengthened and swayed, trying to catch a glimpse — just a glimpse of the pope during the president and first lady’s welcoming ceremony at the White House.
They came from Maryland, New York City, Philadelphia, Idaho, Chile, the U Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and cities across the country. Pilgrims rose early in the morning — some didn’t sleep at all. They rode trains, flew in planes, hailed taxis, and walked. Then they stood in lines reminiscent of a packed day at Disneyland. But this was no theme park. This was reality — in real life President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had invited more than 10,000 pilgrims to welcome Pope Francis to the U.S. on his very first visit to the nation.
I was among the pilgrims.
Evangelicals don’t have a pope, or even a single spokesperson. We’re not a single denomination like the Catholic Church, so we lack a comparable hierarchical structure. Particular denominations have presidents or general secretaries, but no one human being serves as the representative figure of God on earth within the evangelical faith. Rather, following the teaching of Genesis 1:26-27, evangelicals believe all humanity bears the image of God. In fact, one of the functions of the early evangelical movement was to democratize the faith — to proclaim all humanity’s equal access to God through Jesus.
So, why did my heart shake with anticipation at the thought of being in this pope’s presence? Here’s why: More than any other person, since St. Francis of Assisi (his namesake), this pope has embodied the values and priorities of Jesus. He has shown us what it might have been like to walk the earth with Jesus himself — what it might have been like to watch him embrace the leper, to watch him defend the adulterous woman calling the Pharisees not to judge, to watch Jesus challenge the values and priorities of the religious establishment of his day. He has been a vision to watch.
As we waited for Pope Francis to arrive, I asked some of the people around me why they came. I received as many answers as there were people. Some came simply to see him. Others “always come to these kinds of functions.” Still others spoke of the pope’s capacity to unite a broken world and his value for the least of these.
I found my own neck stretching and swaying left, then right, looking for a good view of the jumbotron. A large tree with strong branches framed my view. As I watched pictures of past papal visits flash across the screen, my eyes drifted upward and rested on the tree branch that hovered overhead. I was reminded of Zacchaeus.
All around me people in suits schemed for how they could get a better view.
It struck me: Zacchaeus was a suit guy, out among the people. He strained so hard to get a glimpse of Jesus that this big-wig tax collector actually scaled a tree to see him. Looking at that tree on the White House grounds, I understood Zacchaeus in a new way.
Zacchaeus had to have fierce desire to see Jesus to scale that tree. What was going on in his life that drove him to the crowd this day? It’s so easy to villainize the tax collectors in scripture. They ruthlessly exploited their own people for personal gain — overtaxing, then skimming off the top. Whole families, communities, and cities were impoverished because of their greed. The image of God within their jurisdictions were crushed by poverty and crisis.
We usually think of the suit people as having it all together, but on that day, Zacchaeus stretched and swayed back and forth, trying to see, but he couldn’t. Then he spotted that tree. And the desire to see Jesus — just to get a glimpse of him — overwhelmed him. And Zacchaeus scaled the tree. And Jesus saw his desire, called him down, and came in close to him. By ministering to Zacchaeus, Jesus lifted economic oppression off the shoulders of an entire town!
Ten thousand pilgrims, many in suits, strained to get close to the pontiff. At one point, a few people jumped the gate that held my section in. They stood in front of the section, blocking the view of people who had been waiting for hours. The pilgrims booed. That was a sight. Here we were on a spiritual pilgrimage, and people in suits booed other people in suits for doing exactly what Zacchaeus did — cheating to get closer to God.
When the president and pope drove past our section — only feet from our group — a great cheer rose from the crowd. Then they were gone, and could only be seen on the jumbotron.
The president spoke of “the least of these” and the necessity of our public policy to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable among us.
When the pope stepped to the mic, the crowd hushed. He opened his mouth and we could not hear him. He spoke more softly than President Obama, plus his accent made it difficult to make out what he was saying. One person asked if he was speaking English. Just then, the crowd in the bleacher seats roared with applause. The VIPs, the ones on the inside, could hear fine. They were being blessed. But soon, the masses began to mill about and talk amongst each other. Some headed for the gate, which was locked until the end.
I stood and watched and, wiped tears from my eyes.
These people stopped their lives to come and hear the pope. Like Zacchaeus, they were hungry for spiritual nourishment. This was an opportunity for the masses to be ministered to, but they could not hear the one they came for. So they lost interest. In that moment, they were like sheep without a shepherd.
“Is this what it’s like for people outside of the church?” I thought.
“Do they yearn for connection with God, yearn for guidance, and yearn for a shepherd? Do they turn their heads toward the church only to find those in the pews are having a smash-bang time, but they have no access to the blessing?”
What can we do to make sure the masses have access to the guidance they long for from their spiritual shepherds?
I read the pope’s speech when I got home. It was a powerful affirmation of the need to protect our common earth, particularly for the sake of the most vulnerable.
I would have cheered, too, if I could hear him.