By Thomas Palanza, Jr.
I studied at Catholic University in DC for my BA. I was a junior when Barak Obama was elected President. Even I, a person who normally wants nothing to do with “politics,” remember how big a deal it was, how exciting it was. A few of my friends and I went to the Inauguration. I remember the Red Line Metro cars at six am, so full a squirrel couldn’t get in; four lane streets shut down with thousands of people on them like a huge swarm of fish, bumping and shuffling along towards the National Mall; crowds so big that I actually gave up trying to find one of my friends who had come separately. It was an exciting event, awe inspiring in fact. But it wasn’t seeing a presidential inauguration that impressed me; it was witnessing so many people coming together for something that took your breath away. Why did all these people come out for this? It was January and cold, traveling by any means was a nightmare, and even when you got to the Mall, you could only see the ceremony via one of four jumbo screens setup on the grass. Mr. Spock would certainly have stayed home that day, so why did so many people ignore reason and go anyway?
I also remember another side to the election – the pre-election campaigning. Most prominent in my memory are the posters pasted all over the Metro. The famous “Hope” poster was one of the most common. I remember when I first saw it I felt in my gut (and that is the part of me I trust the most) that something about it wasn’t right. Like a vague bad feeling floating around in the back of my mind, I could not figure out what bothered me about the “Hope” poster for a long time. When I finally got around to thinking about it, I realized that, obviously, the poster wanted me to see Barak Obama as my source of hope. This didn’t sit well with me since Barak Obama is a human and, in an Augustinian nutshell, humans do both beautiful and ugly things, are capable of good and evil, and, in either case, are not dependable sources of good or evil acts. A human being, I thought, was really not going to be a good source of hope for me.
No, of course, that is the role God is supposed to have. God is the only dependable source of hope, beauty, goodness, truth. But God is just so hard to see sometimes, you know? But we humans, we long to have a secure source of hope, a rock upon which we can solidly build our house. Yet, God doesn’t always seem so secure, so safe as other things do. The Israelites experienced this. Even after God parted a freakin’ sea for them, they still wanted to worship a baby cow made of metal! Fools, right? No more foolish than we are, I’d say. Sure we Moderns, Post-Moderns, or Whatevers don’t worship cows or Baal, but if we reflect a little bit, it is easy to see why the First Commandment warns against idolatry – it’s a timeless failure so easy and so satisfying to fall into. It is easy for us to latch on to what seem to be more solid substitutions for God. The “Hope” poster presents Barak Obama to us as a substitute for God, but this happens all the time, in all parts of life, not just politics, and is often done with the best intentions.
So, I ask myself and you, are we setting Pope Francis up for a big let down? Do we love the real Francis, the man and our brother in Christ, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, or do we love the “Francis” we want to love? Are we hopeful because of Francis and his work, or are we hopeful because of the Spirit of the Christ living and working in us? Who is our god and who are our idols and how can we tell them apart?