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Mandela, Pope Francis give us hope

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: January 15, 2014 6:09AM



They almost seem like characters drawn from story books, these two old souls who have captured much of our imagination in recent days.

One of them, Nelson Mandela, surprised us by dying. Having survived war, decades in prison, and arguably the most difficult political challenges ever to face the head of a modern, democratic state, he seemed immortal.

In the end, neither his enemies nor the world’s caprice could wear him down, but the calendar finally did. He simply ran out of days.

Until that moment, what didn’t kill Mandela made him wiser, forged and refined in him the character traits upon which countless pundits and eulogists have poured our collective thanks and admiration in recent days.

Not everyone has joined the chorus. Those whose checklists for right living include absolute opposition to abortion and obeisance to capitalism found Mandela wanting. Even his detractors, however, must marvel at the personal convictions that revealed themselves when he emerged from 27 years in a prison where enemies, who intended that he should never again know a single day of freedom, had shut him up.

I tremble to think at how tempted I would find myself in those circumstances, cut off for so long from my family and everything else I love by people who deem me less than human, to spend the days and nights of isolation savoring my anger, cultivating a pure and holy hatred, planning a perfect revenge should the chance to exact it ever come.

When that moment came for Mandela, and release from prison morphed into the call to lead a fiercely divided nation into a new era, he devoted himself to reconciliation as the way forward.

The same spirit that has prompted a few storied saints to ask forgiveness for their executioners led Mandela to the conviction that no one can live in genuine freedom unless liberation comes for both oppressors and the oppressed.

South Africa has not evolved into Paradise, but without Mandela’s gifts, it might have descended into a bloody hell.

Almost 20 years ago, a delightful but little-known film titled “Saving Grace” took a page from the story of Peter the Great, who lived (and learned) anonymously for a time among his peasant subjects, and featured Tim Conti in the role of Leo XIV, a newly elected pope who chafes under the way his new position separates him from ordinary people.

Much to his staff’s dismay, Leo sneaks off and lives for a time, both giving and receiving care amid the difficult and dangerous affairs of a poor village some distance from Rome.

This week, a very real pope with strikingly similar instincts appears on the cover of Time magazine as “Person of the Year.” By now, most of the world knows of Francis’ nocturnal ministrations among Rome’s homeless population and his eschewing some of the more opulent trappings of his office.

True, his critique of unfettered capitalism and admonishments about institutions that obsess over relatively trivial matters while billions go hungry has earned him a few detractors. (None of us enjoy having our idols called out.)

Mostly, however, the world, including millions of non-Catholics, has fallen in love with this pope whom few knew only a year ago.

Why? In one man who somehow learned to love his enemies, and in another who finds his life in loving kindness, we get a glimpse of the selves we are all meant to be. And we get to believe that maybe, just maybe, the meek will inherit the earth, and heaven, wherever and whatever that might be, belongs to the poor in spirit after all.



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