Human beings may be the only form of life on the planet who regularly, even willfully and eagerly, forget how to be what they were made to be.
Dogs and cats, roses and orange trees, birds and fish and horses all behave precisely as they were created, obeying their true nature and fitting neatly into the great picture, unburdened by an excess of imagination or temptation.
But men and women are different. Made with free will, faced with choices and burdened by the reality of sin, we can find it easy, expedient, desirable or even pleasant to act in ways that are contrary to our true selves, our very natures. Whether by dint of will or through simple erosion of our better selves through unthinking habit, we can be hugely surprised by a sudden reminder that our true path lies in another direction.
At these pivotal moments in our lives, and in the course of history, we actually need to be shown where to find what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
Enter Pope Francis.
Over the course of six extraordinary days, and hundreds of indelible moments, the pontiff last week presented Americans with a series of lessons in holiness. They were, in fact, not so much lessons as reminders—a stirring of the collective memory and an illumination, compelling us to hearken back to the times when the presence of grace was clear and when our hearts eagerly responded to it.
They did not arrive so much in the grander occasions such as the Holy Father’s address to Congress or the U.N. General Assembly, but in the spontaneous embraces of children, the sick, the elderly, the prisoners and ordinary people on the rope lines with tears in their eyes. They arrived one after the other during Francis’ remarkable, and entirely off-script, homily Saturday evening at the Festival of Families. They arrived every time he smiled—he was indefatigable—and radiated a zest and joy that had the power to embrace, comfort and animate right through the television screen.
All of Francis’ writings and homilies extolling what he calls the “culture of encounter” could not approach the blazing effectiveness and complete engagement of his remarkable presence in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. He was, like Jesus, actively and joyfully showing us how to become our best. If his examples delighted and amazed us, it was amazement born of recognition that what we were seeing and hearing was how a thoroughly authentic and holy human being exists in the world. He was turning us toward home.
It was seed that fell on good ground.