Six years ago I, like many people in their twenties at the time, was swept up in the election of Barack Obama. Despite having some major misgivings as a Catholic about some of his policies, the idea of a leader running on a virtue itself, that of hope, was more than just intriguing, it was inspiring. Now six years later the 44th president of the United States will arrive here in Rome to meet with the 266th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis, a man who has captured the imaginations of so many in the world and has brought back that word to our minds, hope.
Is there anything so infectious as hope? It is sadly possible that a person could go their whole lives without ever experiencing the love of another person, and it may well be that one never assents to faith, but hope is that well which springs up within us and impels us forward towards a future which is inexplicably already understood to be better than our present. Hope is that promise of the future which is not yet our own, yet which we desire to possess. Hope is also that fire that spreads quickly not just in our own hearts, but in the hearts of those around us.
I remember the morning of Obama’s first inauguration when I made my way with three good friends to the National Mall. It was so packed that we watched the whole thing from a jumbotron screen by the Washington Monument, over a mile away. Yet everyone in the crowd was joyful, and joy always seems to accompany hope. Everyone was kind, and kindness seems to always accompany hope. Although Washington was overcrowded and cold, hope lit a fire in our hearts.
I remember March 13th of last year, when on a damp, cold, night I stood in St. Peter’s Square with a cheap, leaking, umbrella that I had bought at a gift shop on the Via della Conciliazione. I was cheering on a seagull sitting atop a smokestack along with all of the other people gathered in the square where, once again, I was watching things unfold on a jumbotron. At 7:05 in the evening a puff of grey, then white, smoke went up from that smokestack and the crowd went wild with joy, people helped each other up to the front of the square to be under the balcony, forming a canopy of umbrellas to keep each other dry in thousands of acts of kindness, and suddenly the cold wasn’t so cold, and the rain just a bit less damp when, an hour later, the skies parted to reveal the moon and stars above just as the curtains parted to reveal Pope Francis.
It is no secret that Pope Francis and President Obama disagree fundamentally on some important issues, from Francis’s calls for peace in Syria when the President seemed ready to start air strikes to Obama’s insistence on the HHS mandate which the Church has consistently come out strongly against. What these two men disagree on is well known, but what doesn’t change is that word which has so often been used to describe them both, and the word that lives and breathes in each of us, hope. That may be what makes this Thursday important in the end, not the conversations between them, not the inevitable invitation on President Obama’s part for Pope Francis to visit the US in 2015, but that we might take a minute to remember the thing which unites them rather than divides them, and which unites us all along with them, hope.