Earlier this week Pope Francis made a historic visit via satellite feed to Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, where he reminded those of us in attendance that Catholic faith and education are capable of updating themselves.
Not surprisingly, he spoke about social responsibility, which he called “friendship in society.” But after a student in my homeroom described her challenging skin condition and mentioned a passion for music, the pontiff surprised the entire crowd by asking her to sing an impromptu song.
In my seat at the back of the school’s chapel, I sat stunned, not just by Valerie’s strength in singing a graceful Spanish song about the Virgin Mary on international TV, but by the refreshing, welcoming tone of this pope and his priorities for modern Catholics.
In the past, when I have mentioned to strangers that I taught at a Catholic school, they sometimes responded as though I had lost all capacity for independent thought. To compound matters, a recent study of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate confirmed my status as the Typical American Catholic – down to my gender, age, education, income and middle name (Mary).
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But the pope’s virtual encounter with our students and other American audiences this week was profound evidence of a personal connection with ordinary people’s stories and sources of courage they may not have known they possessed. His ministry has a special resonance in America’s Latino communities. The three venues included in the pope’s satellite visit indicated a lot about his areas of focus and overall vision for the church: our school, which primarily serves the proud children of immigrant, lower-income families; a Texas parish near the U.S.-Mexican border; and a group of people in Los Angeles who have experienced homelessness.
As the pope listened to stories of extreme challenge and living on the margins of society, he repeatedly reminded his subjects that they were not alone, and he urged them to remain courageous.
As a world leader who has famously broken with formal traditions and participated in such modern rituals as “selfie” photos with tourist fans, the pope adeptly used screens and satellite technology to reflect back Americans’ devastating stories as well as their hidden strengths. Valerie’s song, so unscripted and uplifting, provided an apt soundtrack for the pontiff’s disarming, down-to-earth style and messages. He reminded us of Jesus’ humble origins. When he spoke about forces in social justice, he further connected with his audience by using soccer metaphors to illustrate his points.
Back in Rome, the pope’s range and accessibility are spectacularly demonstrated in the Vatican Museums, which are home to both the Sistine Chapel and an exhibit of the pope’s autographed soccer jerseys from across the world.
One glorious morning last summer, I had the opportunity to view both. Later, when I told my students about seeing the soccer jerseys autographed for “Francisco,” they were delighted and wanted to see photos. (Not to worry: We also study Michelangelo and “The Creation of Adam” at our high school.) It is not surprising that tourism to the Vatican has more than doubled since Pope Francis took office, according to published reports.
While in Rome, I also had a chance to hear the pope address the crowd in St. Peter’s Square from his apartment. As in Chicago, the pontiff was mainly discernible on a large screen and sound system set up on the square. That day, Rome was celebrating the Solemnity of the Feast of Peter and Paul, the patron saints of the city. After the noontime Angelus, in which the pope offered a blessing and discussed the relevant gospel, he greeted the crowd.
Speaking in everyday Italian, he mentioned his upcoming trip to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. He also encouraged the crowd to enjoy our lunch and to make sure we saw that night’s celebratory fireworks, whose proceeds would benefit a charity initiative in the Holy Land and countries of the Middle East. Squinting up at the papal apartment and over at the large color screen, I listened to the pope in the stark heat of St. Peter’s Square and felt oddly at home. For the first time in years, my faith felt not just sustaining but exciting.
Earlier this week, when my Cristo Rey students rushed into homeroom, they were buzzing, but not about the recent surge of international attention. The seniors were excited about signing up for opportunities to volunteer this fall, which includes helping out at the Chicago Marathon. Fresh from their unprecedented opportunity to speak with the celebrity pontiff, the students cared less about his fame than living out his values.
Carolyn Alessio teaches at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. She is a writer of nonfiction and fiction. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.