I have some fierce Francis Fever. I recently Tweeted:
A spiritual muscle memory flexes, prayers bubble up, and I automatically mumble along with the beautiful rhythms of the liturgy. #popefever
Having grown up Catholic, I still love the ceremony and ritual of the High Mass. The intricate vestments, the smoky curls of musky incense that slowly infuse the sanctuary, and the various rites and professions of faith.
Like so many people, I was mesmerized by his “working” the enormous crowds that gathered to get even a few seconds’ glimpse of him as he motored by. (Surely someone is already tracking the bump in Fiat sales.)
At one point during coverage of the Pontiff traveling through Central Park at dusk, the newscaster accurately said that it looked like a cloud of fireflies behind him as the cell phones blinked and flashed in the evening light.
I can’t say whether or not I would’ve fought the crowds to see him but I did watch a lot of the coverage on television. The reaction of the crowds seemed fairly universal, no matter the location. His presence and his aura appeared so genuine, no matter the circumstance or environment in which he found himself. His somber, pained expression while speaking of the atrocities of sexual abuse in the church or the kind and joyful face when greeting schoolchildren.
I think it was his genuineness that was so attractive and relatable and part of what made people show up in droves, simply to be in his presence. So what happens in the space between the longing to experience a moment in the presence of a holy and engaging man and the need to physically capture that moment in a photo? Ev-ery-one had a camera phone pointed at him.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking back on memories frozen in time. But what struck me was the similar experience of one after another of the thousands of people who were close to him. A person would take photos as he approached and then phones were tentatively lowered as he drew nearer. Just as the Pope was upon the person, it was as if the person was literally unable to resist the impulse to get another shot – a better shot – and up came the phone again. The Pope was consistently greeted by people with one hand extended and one hand balancing a phone. I marveled at the overachievers who attempted to contort around in order to capture a selfie with him.
While I completely understand the phenomenon, I couldn’t help but feel sad to see it play out again and again in the crowds. Saddest of all were the people who put the phone down too late, only to have their hand come shooting out from the crowd seconds after the Pope had passed them by. They missed him. Even one of the priests seated near the altar at mass slowly raised a camera during the transition of readers. I smiled as he suddenly reverted back to the altar boy who might’ve snuck a comic book into the sleeve of his robe.
I don’t count myself as “above” this behavior in any way. (Speaker starstruck much?) What troubles me is not only that we have come to rely on our screens as the best way to capture a memory – but that the screens are as much a way of elevating our own worth as they are about pausing a moment in pixels on a digital device. A way to anchor ourselves in a deeper, more meaningful experience and to have proof of that anchoring to show other people.
After the Pope had passed by, banks of people could be seen checking their phones. Did I get it?! Did I get a photo to show everyone that I was here?
It’s as if we think our devices are capturing the memories when really they’re only preserving an image of a static moment in time. Unless we engage our hearts and minds, our memories will remain as flat and lifeless as the images we strive to capture and hold onto. Memories may be fleeting but experienced fully they can last a lifetime in ways that a photo never will.
Lord, keep me present in the moments of my life so that I may not miss you or those to whom you lead me. Let me not be a bystander but a person engaged with the world, enabled by your strength to greet others with love, speak the truth when it’s difficult and experience joy with those around me.