Advertisement
Advertisements ad ad ad ad ad ad

May 14, 2017

Father James F. Keenan, SJ

The tenderness revolution

Did you see Pope Francis’ TED Talk? On April 25, he released a surprise video for the annual TED conference, recording it from one of his offices. It’s terrific.

The 17-minute talk carries three messages. The first is a call to solidarity; Francis shares his own self-questioning whenever he encounters someone poor or jobless or migrating and asks, “Why them, why not me?” Instead of answering with words, the pope tells us that when we ask that question we are being invited to respond by entering into solidarity with the other person.

Francis then asks where we find hope. He points his finger toward us and answers, “you.” When you respond, there is hope. “A single individual is enough for hope to exist.”

This truly intimate portion of the talk is where Pope Francis engages us face to face, calling each of us to be signs of hope by our solidarity. He tells us that after I respond, there will be other “yous,” individuals who respond to the call of solidarity and that together we become an “us.”

Pope Francis then asks a test question: “Does hope begin when we have an ‘us’?” No, he answers. “Hope began when you responded. When there is an ‘us,’ there is a revolution.”

Next he moves to his wonderful third message, the revolution of tenderness. He describes how tenderness comes from the heart and helps us to recognize, hear, respond and touch the other to comfort and to assist. He calls it the “language of little children.” Then, evoking images of how parents meet and talk with their children, he adds, “tenderness is being on the same level of the other.”

The pope brings this revolution to the world of leadership: a revolution for the strong, for those willing to engage the other, to meet and respond to others in their own vulnerability. “Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude.” He explains: “It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility. Please, allow me to say it loud and clear: The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, the more responsible you are to act humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other.” He closes by asking us to be tender with him.

Easter is a time for encountering tenderness, and the Scriptures offer us their own witness to the tenderness of the Risen Christ. Every Gospel account of Easter is an occasion to witness to the tender mercy of Jesus. Why? Because in each story he responds to another in their moments of profound grief.

Nothing is more poignant than the encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden, when she is completely undone by the missing body of Jesus and asks him, thinking him the gardener, where have they put his body? He simply speaks her name.

Or think of those in the Upper Room. The disciples have been gathering there where they have been sharing day and night their sadness: the one who taught them love, who loved them, who taught them to love one another, had been brutally taken from them. They are bereft, they are united in their mourning, and in that state of utter loss, Jesus enters with words of peace, and, in order to calm their fears, eats — a simple gesture to assure them that he has returned.

Think, too, of how Thomas expresses his incredulity, and consider how the Lord returns and exposes to Thomas his final wound. Many think of this as Jesus’ counter-challenge to Thomas, but I think that the gesture is Jesus’ decision to be “on the same level of Thomas.” It’s not a challenge; it’s a revelation. By divesting himself again, as he did at the Last Supper, Jesus reveals to the grieving Thomas Jesus’ own, embodied history of vulnerability.

In a remarkable painting “Noli Me Tangere” that hangs in Chichester Cathedral, Graham Sutherland depicts Christ the gardener ascending stairs and, as Mary Magdalene extends her arms to Jesus in grief, he bends forward, extending his arms to nearly touch her as he leaves. Like the famous Sistine Chapel image of the fingers of the Creator extending to nearly touch those of Adam, Jesus and Mary Magdalene express with tenderness the loving union that exists between them. It is a scene of tender love, the seed of a revolution.

Keenan is the Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College.