Creativity, Connection, and Conversion

Today’s Read:
Austen Ivereigh, An Interview with Pope Francis: “A Time of Great Uncertainty,” Commonweal, Apr. 8, 2020, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/time-great-uncertainty

Today’s occasional read is not my normal fare. I was very moved by an interview with Pope Francis that was published on the Commonweal website last week, and want to talk about it.

I am not Catholic but I am a great admirer of many aspects of the pope’s ideology. I found many aspects of this article to be extremely relevant to my own experience of life under lockdown so far. There is clearly a reason that many non-Catholics see this pope as a moral and spiritual leader for our times.

The interview was comprised of the pope’s answers to questions on six topics posed by the interviewer:

  • The pope’s practical and spiritual experience of the pandemic and lockdown
  • The mission of the church in the context of COVID-19
  • The pope’s reaction to have governments have responded to the crisis
  • Whether the crisis provides an opportunity for the human race to reconsider its lifestyle choices
  • How the crisis is affecting how the church operates
  • How Catholics should be celebrating Lent and Easter

I will not provide an answer-by-answer breakdown of the Pope’s responses to these questions. I believe they are well worth reading and considering on your own. Instead, I will offer some observations I made, and insights I gained, from reading what he had to say.

One of my initial observations is how well-read he is. He cites Catholic doctrinal works like Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, which was written in 1968 and is a tough read for the modern progressive, although it totally makes sense that the pope of the late 1960s felt compelled to write it and that a pope of today eagerly cites it. Pope Francis also cites several works of literature in his answers. I think it is very important that the leader of the Catholic Church reads fiction, and takes the lessons that can be learned from books to hear when developing his thoughts on the world and on humanity.

Another general reaction I had to the piece is how the pope is affected by the uncertainty of our lives now, and responds with a call for the Church, and for people generally, to react with creativity. He uses that word several times throughout the interview.

Pope Francis mentions time and time again that creative connection is what is called for in these times, and that we must have the courage to see the world and connect with people and things in new ways. We have to convert (that word comes up several times as well) how we think about objects, about the natural world, about our fellow human beings, and about poverty and suffering. This period of uncertainty is giving us he opportunity to convert fully, rather than halfway.

I found this to be especially powerful. I have thought a lot about the reversion that must be taking place in the natural world now that humans who consume things with such gross abandon are locked down so significantly. Thinking about the renewed cleanliness of the air and water, and knowing that animals can occupy spaces previously taken up by humans more safely, makes me happier than driving my car (and I love driving).

Hearing my fellow humans say that they are cooking at home more, making do with what they have, and reconnecting with their families has been wonderful and restorative as well — a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud.

Will we live with more care toward our fellow humans, animals, and our earth in the future? In other words, can we convert more than halfway to that place? I hope so.

I am also thinking about those who are alone and hurting and scared, about those who face financial uncertainty and hardship, about people who are taking care of their ill family members, and about those who are saying their final goodbyes to their loved ones over FaceTime.

How is this going to change us, all of us? What will our collectively psyche look like after this is over? Will we go back to blindly consuming things and people, only to throw them away when we are done with them? How can we?

Pope Francis also warns against “escapism.” Here is where he and I part company. As a librarian, I feel a responsibility to read and consume information widely so that I can help researchers learn and make connections that they might not have otherwise made.

Some of the news has been wonderful — people are coming together and caring about each other in ways they never have before. But, of course, there is also terrible news. There is a moral and leadership vacuum at the head of our government that is serving us incredibly poorly. Our president blames everyone else for his own failures and shortcomings, and does not have a single word of compassion or care for his fellow Americans who have died, or for their families.

It is a monumental task to read the news these days without becoming consumed by anger, fear and dread. Yet I continue to do so, because it is my responsibility to stay informed. Therefore, my afternoon nap, my TV shows, and my audiobooks are key. If they are “escapist,” well, they are also vital, and I will not give them up.

Finally, I have developed some interesting new ideas about work in librarianship. I have never had to be more creative as a librarian than since the beginning of this lockdown. Our books are locked away and none of us can get them. What has been heartening, despite the frustration, is to learn how much people use our books and miss them. We do what we can to help people find things that will make do until we can all go back to work.

I have found that I am also connecting with our users in ways I never did before. Every Zoom meeting starts with an honest inquiry of how they are doing, not as researchers, but as people. Every meeting ends with a word of gratitude that the library has not been forgotten, and a mention of how good it will be to see them in person again when the lockdown is over. There is a humanity to this work that I have not experienced before, and it is good.

Creativity, connection, and conversion. These are the values that Pope Francis calls on us to live during these times. How are they manifesting themselves in your life and work?

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