A Challenging Smile: Meeting Pope Francis

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By William Deatherage, Chief Executive of The Defenders of Faith

Last week, I was presented with the honor of attending the Vatican’s Perspectives on a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament. The primary purpose of this conference was to foster dialogue about avenues towards eliminating the possession of nuclear weapons. Attending this event were over three hundred and fifty diplomats, Nobel Laureates, and theologians. Amongst the speakers and guests was Pope Francis.

Since the day he took office, the Holy Father has delivered a consistent message of humility and inclusivity, which is vital towards the growth of the Church in the future. While his speech at this incredible gathering was wonderful in content, his actions following the address are what inspired me even more.

A busy man of a demanding office, he only needed to greet those who were celebrating their Nobel awards. However, he insisted on shaking the hands of all three hundred and fifty attendees. We knew that he had finished another meeting immediately before ours and was most likely quite tired, yet he found a way to muster enough energy to meet all of us.

How do you greet a friend? What does your face look like? What attitude do your gestures reflect? Now, how do you greet a stranger and how does this compare to interacting with a friend?

Pope Francis blurs lines. To him, there is no difference between friend and stranger because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Each time he greeted someone, it was as if they were the only person in the room. But what is the secret behind repeating this action three hundred and fifty times? The secret is that there is no repetition. To Pope Francis, every person is an individual; every greeting is unique. The moment I shook his hand, his face lit up as if we were long-lost brothers who were reunited for the first time in years. I walked into the room a stranger and I came out of it a friend.

Pope Francis has a remarkable smile. While his willingness to engage in brief dialogue with people is admirable, I firmly believe that his expression is what truly harkens love from the depth of the soul. People ask me what he said to me. I tell them that I can’t remember and, quite frankly, I don’t care. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then his smile is worth an encyclopedia. That is what I will always remember.

I must emphasize the sheer energy required to share love with others. I recall countless times that I would treat friends or family poorly, simply because I was overwhelmed with schoolwork or hadn’t eaten a snack. In the grand scheme of things, we are all called to be Christ-like; Pope Francis’s “simple” action of greeting people is an apt demonstration that it is possible to emulate Jesus.

People often say to me that holding Jesus’s actions at an exemplary level is unfair, since He is perfect. However, if an eighty year old man can attend meetings all day, every day, while still creating such intimate moments with every person he meets, it is more than possible for teens and young adults to at least treat one another with respect. Too many people claim that it’s impossible to be like Christ. Pope Francis challenges us to think otherwise.

Here is Pope Francis’s challenge. Say hello to someone who you don’t normally talk to. But don’t simply acknowledge them, rather greet them in the same manner you would greet a family member. Pope Francis did NOT need to greet any of us; he did not owe us anything. Similarly, Jesus Christ did not need to live and die for us and, if anything, we owed Him. Challenge yourself to love, challenge yourself to smile, and challenge yourself to be Christ-like.

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