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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Francis taps my faith in people

Pope Francis stops outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in

Pope Francis stops outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Credit: Pool / Damon Winter

We hear what we want to hear.

That's pretty clear now that Pope Francis has come and nearly gone from our shores. He had a lot to say.

Some heard an avatar of progressive liberalism. Some heard a defender of Catholic conservatism. Some heard principles that are red. Some heard principles that are blue. Some heard politics, some heard common sense. Some heard a man of God, some heard a man. Nearly everyone accepted some of what Francis said, and rejected the rest.

We atheists are no different in this respect. We listen to the pope, too. But we do so from a different vantage -- as those who have, as it is said, lost their faith.

It's a phrase I despise. It implies something accidental, something that slipped away, something that might be recovered: I lost my faith but I'll find it again someday. And it's nothing like that. I don't want to get into a deep theological discussion here, or speak for every atheist out there, but at some point -- after eight years of Catholic grammar school, four years of Catholic high school, and 2 1/2 years of Catholic university -- the world just made more sense to this former altar boy without God in it.

But it's not like faith has disappeared. We all have faith, in something. The years test us. Sometimes faith gets stronger, sometimes not. And sometimes, you redirect it elsewhere.

I have faith in people -- in their essential goodness, in their desire to do better and be better, in their urge to build a better world for their children. We don't always agree with each other on how to do that. But it's something we all want.

I know this sounds naive. Look around, right? See all the evil. But let's keep in mind the words of Gandhi, who cautioned: "You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

And, it turns out, Pope Francis has faith in people, too. That was front and center in his epic speech to Congress. He spoke to individuals, and about individuals, emphasizing the importance and potential influence of a single person's contributions. He referred to famous Americans as our better angels, to show how much impact a single person can have. And he implored the rest of us, acting on our own, to do something, too.

Talk with people. Don't turn your back on others. See a stranger's face. Listen to others' stories. Respond humanely. Help them grow.

I want to have faith -- that his words will resonate, that they'll be something more than ink marks on a page or sound bites on a screen.

But I'm struggling.

I'd like to think the upcoming talks between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin is evidence that Francis' plea for dialogue hit home, that his strong words about destroying our earth played a role in China's decision to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, that his idealism and view of the role of politics seared John Boehner's heart.

But then I see the migrant crisis in Europe and the Middle East continuing to worsen, war in so many corners of the world, no end to the corruption in our political ranks, and the likelihood that Francis' words will have no echo in the halls of Congress -- and I despair.

And I realize that in the end, it comes down to the eternal question of faith. Do you believe despite the doubt?

A Pope's words are not some magic elixir. To heed them, you must be ready to hear them. If enough people listen, change is possible.

So, yes, I do have faith. What other choice is there?

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.