Communicating Hope and Trust in our Time

(Cardinal Tobin’s speech from the 51st annual World Communications Day in Brooklyn on May 17)

There is a well-worn motivational fable that’s been retold in various forums involving a man walking a stretch of beach who encounters a child throwing stranded starfish back into the surf. When the man questions what difference this action could possibly make, the child lobs another starfish into the water, noting, “It sure made a difference to that one.”

On March 10th of this year, I found myself accompanying Mr. Catalino Guerrero to his deportation hearing. I did not expect to have anyone compare me to a child or Mr. Guerrero to a form of aquatic life. I simply walked beside a 59-year-old grandfather, a man who has lived in this country for over twenty-five years without ever being accused of a crime – not even a traffic ticket. Catalino, who suffers from diabetes and a heart condition, is anything but a “bad hombre”. He has now been granted a one-year stay and some have noted that this act of accompaniment was a similar to the work of the child with the starfish, that of making a singular difference in the face of vast hopelessness.

In his message for the 51st World Communications Day, Pope Francis observed that life is not simply a bare succession of events, but a history, a story waiting to be told through the choice of an interpretative lens that can select and gather the most relevant data.

I would like to reflect with you this morning on the experience of communicating hope. This was not the reason that prompted me to walk with Mr. Guerrero on that snowy Friday morning. Rather, standing beside him, praying with him and his family, walking with leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in northern New Jersey, speaking with the media covering the event – these actions taken together provided a lens through which others might “read” the event. And the “reading” led people to hope.

As Pope Francis points out in his Message for the 2017 World Day of Communication, for us Christians, that lens can only be good news, beginning with the Good News par excellence: “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mk 1, 1). What is more, this good news – Jesus himself – is not good because it has nothing to do with suffering, but rather because suffering itself becomes part of a bigger picture. It is seen as an integral part of Jesus’ love for the Father and for all humankind. In Christ, God has shown his solidarity with every human situation. He has told us repeatedly, but never better than in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that we are not alone, for we have a Father who is constantly mindful of his children.

It brings to light something Christians believe about grace, the power of God active in the world. Grace is not an abstraction; it is not a theory. It is particular. It stirs individual hearts, transforms particular situations, and changes the world in a gritty, yet transcendent way.

The appreciation for grace is one of the more significant pieces of pastoral wisdom Pope Francis offers for our deep reflection in his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia/The Joy of Love. We never know how God’s grace will break through, to everyone’s surprise, but we have to be open to it. We have to believe in it.

Let me speak of two ways God’s grace broke through in the plight of Catalino Guerrero. The event put a face on people who are frequently deprived of a human face and seen, instead, as something else. Secondly, the event reminds us how grace can transform our faces from a random collection of individuals to a network of solidarity.

The Face of Immigrants

As a young priest, I had an unforgettable encounter with a preacher from the Archdiocese of Newark. Bishop Joseph Francis S.V.D., one of a handful of African-American bishops, was the keynote speaker for an assembly of priests from the center-city and West Side of Detroit, where I was serving in the early 1980’s.

His topic was Brothers and Sisters to Us, a pastoral letter of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the sin of racism. The episcopal conference had published the letter in 1979, and Bishop Francis described one of a series of deanery meetings that were held throughout his Archdiocese of Newark to help implement the letter.

This particular meeting took place in an affluent section of Bergen County, where a good number of well-meaning Catholics had assembled to learn how they could combat the sin of racism. As they entered the parish activities building, they passed a young African American man, dressed in working clothes, who hung up their coats, served coffee and mopped up any spills.

When the evening’s program began, the same young man strode on to the stage, now dressed in a three-piece suit and carrying a brief case. He was an attorney and the keynote speaker for the evening. At the beginning of his presentation, he asked the audience whether they knew him. No one did. Had they ever seen him before? No one could recall. Then he reminded him of the young man, working at the door…

Bishop Francis used this compelling experience to illustrate what racism looks like today. Racism longer features men dressed in bed sheets, galloping with torches in hand to burn cross and terrify. Racism is simply not seeing or, seeing people as something other than human beings.

Jesus did not censure people for overtly oppressing the poor; rather, he used harsh language to open the eyes of people who did not see – characters like the rich man, “dressed in purple and feasting sumptuously,” all the while oblivious to poor Lazarus laying at the door (Luke 16, 19-31). Or the unfortunate “goats” on the left hand of the glorious Son of Man, who couldn’t ever recall seeing their Judge hungry, thirsty, imprisoned or a stranger (Mt. 25, 31-46).

I believe that the service of communicating hope today begins with putting a human face on apparently hopeless situations, situation like that of Catalino. Without the solidarity of so many people of faith, Catalino might well have been wrenched from his wife and their children and grandchildren, and deported from this country.

If it bleeds, it leads.

The facelessness or facial distortion imposed on immigrants and refugees is aided and abetted, not simply by political rhetoric that would have us look at people like Catalino and see drug-dealers, rapists and criminals, but also by a complicit news media.

I do not subscribe to a school of episcopal leadership that makes frequent use of a punching bag called “the media”. But I would like to raise a few questions. It seems clear that networks employ a hierarchy of values to guide its reporting and the fundamental principle for selection appears to be: if it bleeds, it leads. After all, news is a for-profit industry and – I would argue – one that does not always strive to report the facts accurately. Have you noticed how difficult it is to be informed straightforwardly about local and national issues? In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.

Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Having the fearful glued to their televisions, anxiously scanning the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares – but it also raises the probability of eliciting hysteria and hatred. In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, striving for fairness, balance, and integrity. However, both the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle and no-holds barred competition have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It is no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it is to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

What are we to do? Here Pope Francis can help us discover our own faces in solidarity.

Our Faces

In his recent TED Talk, Pope Francis said that where there is one, there is hope. Where this becomes an “us”, there is a revolution. Which raises the issue of power.

Thirty-seven years ago, this country witnessed the so-called “Mariel boatlift”, a mass emigration of Cubans, who traveled from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to the United States between 15 April and 31 October 1980. Initially the refugees were interned in camps throughout southern Florida, and then great numbers were resettled in economically disadvantaged urban areas, like the Detroit parish where I was working.

Among the thousands of immigrants were a number of criminals and many more who were mentally ill. No surprise that some of them ended up in the criminal justice system. I served as a translator for one of these fellows during his arraignment on charges of burglary. Before the hearing began, the public defender spoke to me plainly. “I don’t believe in anything,” he groused, “not in your God or your church. But I believe in the collar you are wearing. Because when the judge sees my client and sees you standing beside him, he sees votes.”

When I accompanied Mr. Guerrero to his deportation hearing, it’s impossible to deny that I brought with me the trappings of the office Pope Francis sprang on me last fall, what my mother would dismiss as a “prince of the Church.” Whatever those trappings are, they do not change the nature of grace. What if every cardinal accompanied every undocumented person who crossed our paths to their deportation hearing? What if every bishop did? Every pastor? Every mayor?

Of course, these are not the people in our society who have been vested with real power to make a positive difference on our country’s immigration policy… Those would be the members of our Congress and our President. Think about it. Especially with apparent one-party rule in our government, Congress and President Trump could pass comprehensive immigration reform tomorrow, if they wanted to. They could bring nearly 12 million people out of the shadows, if they wanted to. Because, after all, this is not about border security. This is about being attentive to the reality of people who are already in our communities, most of whom are functioning well and, despite their marginalized, shadowy existence, contribute to their communities. A person unbound by Christian charity would say that you really have to believe in inflicting cruelty on innocent people to choose to support the policies we have seen in recent months while possessing the power to change the law.

Appearing beside Catalino Guerrero on March 10 was principally an act of compassion on my part, born from the sight of a suffering human being. For many, that presence communicated hope that the Church does not live in an ivory tower, that our faith has not been privatized. That, without pretending to have the final word in a secular society, the Church has a right to a voice in the public square and we must claim that voice.

I think Pope Francis understands how his office can communicate hope. Allow me to conclude with a story to illustrate his determination.

A Visit that Communicated Hope

The story begins shortly after his election in March 2013. Pope Francis is said to have told the Cardinal Secretariat of State that he wanted to visit the island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island and a destination for desperate refugees and immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Over the last decades, thousands of men, women and children have perished in the sea surrounding the island.

The Cardinal suggested that the proposed trip would be viewed as a statement by the newly elected pontiff. He should consider seriously the message he might be communicating to the world. Several days later, the pope repeated his intention to visit Lampedusa. Seeing his resolve, the Secretary of State accepted the inevitable but cautioned Francis that it would take months to make the necessary preparations, coordinate security and the media, and work out the necessary protocols with the Italian government.

The following week, the poor Secretary of State received another call, this one from a vice-president of Alitalia, the national airline, who reported that a passenger named Jorge Bergoglio had reserved a seat on a flight from Rome to Lampedusa. The Secretary got moving and, by the end of June, Pope Francis arrived at Lampedusa with a message of hope.

My modest contribution to your reflection today is this: as Christians we have no option but to be disciples of hope – a realistic hope, not pie in the sky in the great bye and bye. I suggest the way we do that is by putting a face on the faceless or restoring a human face to those whose faces have been distorted. In doing so, we show our face, not as a bunch of isolated individuals but as a network of hope: people who believe and, because of that belief, accept the bond of solidarity.

Jesus gave a “face” to the faceless of his time.

He calls on his Body, the Church to put a face on solidarity by recognizing human faces. I am delighted that you will spend this day discovering how we can do this better.