As I look at public reaction to Pope Francis' U.S. visit, I think of the Eastern parable of the four blind men who encounter an elephant. Each feels a certain part of the pachyderm, such as the trunk, a tusk, or the side, and reports different findings about the nature of this beast.
As politicians, reporters, pundits, religious leaders, and others comment on Francis' journey, it seems many miss the larger picture.
For some, the focus is on this energetic and engaging figure who casts aside the formalities of the papacy -- preferring to go with the hundreds of thousands who came to hear his message of God's love and mercy.
They see him shunning a limousine for a Fiat, stopping to greet people along the way -- such as the 10-year-old daughter of immigrants -- or visiting homeless people in Washington, students at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem, prisoners in Philadelphia, or victims of sexual abuse. "This guy is off the charts," someone said to me.
Actually, in many ways Pope Francis is not that different from one of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II, whose long papacy was noted for drawing large crowds and public adulation as well as moving personal encounters with ordinary people -- both scheduled and spontaneous. Remember the hundreds of thousands of young people who flocked to World Youth Day in Denver in 1993?
John Paul provided the model for a pope as a public figure -- rather than one who favors ceremonies or closed-door meetings, only rarely coming out on the balcony to issue pronouncements or greet visitors in controlled papal audiences.
But some observers see an advocate for their own vision of the church or the world. That perspective often comes with a heavy dose of wishful thinking, bolstered by narrow reporting which exaggerates and misrepresents the significance of some of Pope Francis' off-the-cuff remarks -- "Who am I to judge?" for example. This ignores Pope Francis' extensive remarks that reflect traditional teachings.
Others latch onto a limited range of Pope Francis' social concerns, such as his outspokenness on the environment and climate change, the plight of immigrants, global inequality and the suffering of the poor -- identifying him with the left. Yet all of these were addressed to varying degrees by earlier popes. Pope Francis said his message is not one of the left but of Catholic social teaching.
Some on the right point exclusively to Pope Francis' frequent though less obvious comments affirming Catholic teaching on abortion, traditional marriage and religious liberty. Many note his meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order embroiled in a legal dispute over the contraceptive mandate of Obama-care. Yet it is difficult to deny a shift in emphasis with Francis.
Just as with the elephant examined by the blind men, the reality of Francis is bigger than isolated and sometimes self-interested observations by the public or ideological advocates.
Rather, Pope Francis, by his example and his message, points beyond such narrow perspectives, and he challenges the church and world to something more. He calls for an encounter first with God, but also with each other. He urges us to serve and protect the vulnerable and displaced of the world, but also the unborn and sick and elderly. He implores us to preserve the ecology of the Earth, but also the human ecology of the family.
Unlike the blind men who tried to discern the nature of the elephant, we don't have to remain narrow-minded. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, minds and hearts.
Pete Sheehan, a former senior reporter for The Long Island Catholic, is a freelance writer in Ohio.