The Pope’s Popularity

I wrote most of this week’s news item while on the plane to Milwaukee. I am there now attending a conference. Yesterday I had the opportunity to sample Milwaukee’s beer, cheese, and pretzels. With the blues playing in the background, I couldn’t have been happier. I’ll write something about the conference next week, but for this column, I am going to write about what surprised me the most last week.

The pope. Why is he so popular? I forget, did he play with the Beatles? The crowds he drew last week were larger than the crowds at a free rock concert. John Lennon famously said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The pope proved him wrong. There were more people in Philadelphia to hear his mass than there were people sliding around in the rain at Woodstock. President Barack Obama, our most recent international superstar, drew fewer people to his events during the first presidential campaign than the pope did. The estimates of the crowd at the pope’s mass in Philadelphia were close to 1 million people. That is a 1 followed by six zeros. Why do so many people want to see him, touch him, and even drink from his water glass (as one congressman did)?

It has something to do with our needs in today’s times. Every generation shares some common characteristics, values, and attitudes. The young people in the sixties were optimistic and believed they could change the world. They may have been naive, but they questioned authority, explored alternative ways to live, and brought about quite a few changes that made a difference in people’s lives. Unfortunately, the attitude of that generation–the optimism and hope–was replaced, first by self-indulgence and later by cynicism. During recent decades, the most pervasive attitude in the U.S. seems to be get yours while you can. When people get scared because resources are scarce, one approach is to compete with everyone and take as much as you can no matter what happens to others. The people of today’s generation, however, seem more committed to improving things and advocating for social justice. They are a little like the hippies, yippies, and trippies of the sixties, but they are not so “far out.” They are optimistic. They question the status quo. They want change. But they are more practical than the people of the sixties era. They realize they are fighting powerful social forces, and they need to see the results of the changes they foster.

So, why is the pope so popular? The pope symbolizes a shift from the old bureaucratic, traditional way of doing things. He undoubtedly believes in principles and rules but he advocates for a more tolerant, people-focused way of life. On a personal level he represents something we both admire and desire: authenticity. The pope is who he appears to be. He has integrity. One of the powerful forces this generation needs to fight is the pervasive idea that image is everything. Image tells us that it is more important to act like we care about people instead of doing something to help them. When the pope stops the Fiat to kiss a young man in a wheelchair, he does so not because it will make for a good photo op, but because he cares about him, even though he doesn’t really know him. The pope puts himself at risk to reach out to others. He makes sacrifices. He expects nothing in return. Do you think he is happy or is he delusional?

Many theories in interpersonal communication are derived from an economic model which suggests that our decisions are based on a cost-benefit analysis. According to this perspective, people ultimately choose what they perceive to be in their own self- (read that word as “selfish”) interest. For example, according to this model, when we consider whether or not to get married to someone, we calculate the pluses and minuses, the pros and cons, or the upside and downside. When we contemplate divorce, we reach the decision by thinking about what we would gain or lose by doing so. The problem with these economically derived theories is that people are not calculating machines. Even if we were Spock-like in our thought processes, we can’t predict the future or take the time to weigh all the costs and benefits involved in our relationships. But the more significant point is that our decisions are as rooted in our emotions as they are in our powers of reasoning. At times, emotions make us delusional, but our emotional connections are what make us happy. We may never be as popular as the pope, but if we care about others and put their needs ahead of our own, then they may do the same in return. Our relationships will be stronger, will last longer, and will bring us happiness every day of our lives.

Back to the present. Today, a keynote speaker shared an African proverb with the audience. It goes something like this: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go on far, go together.

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