It was a perfect Fall morning with bright blue skies, and our team’s cross country coach was zipping back and forth on the course, covering checkpoint after checkpoint. We’ve seen him do this many times before in our years as xc parents. He darts from one part of the course to the next, and offers just the right words, at the right time, to each kid, in each race. They know the sound of his voice and they can hear it through all of the cowbells and noise and yelling. No word is wasted, as the words are chosen specifically for each person and personality, based on what they need in that moment to do their best. How our Coach even knows the name of each runner is beyond me, but he does, and these kids know they are known. It’s really an awesome thing to behold. He never says anything negative, never scolds. He offers a mix of encouragement and specific help, and it’s all done in the most compassionate, supportive way. The kids respond to this. They hear his voice, they want to please him, and his presence keeps them running their best.
Today, our Coach reminded me of Pope Francis. It seems like a strange thing to say and it’s a strange thing to write, but it’s true. Francis is running from Washington DC , to New York, to Philadelphia, with multiple stops in each city on an exhaustive schedule, meeting as many people as he can right where they live. He is encouraging, teaching, and loving people exactly where they are in life, and his presence is motivation enough for them to keep going in their “race”, their spiritual lives.
I hear the critical voices of some inside the church who wish the Holy Father was speaking more decisively about political issues of interest to them during this visit, but it seems to me they are missing the point entirely. In any race, there are plenty of people on the sidelines yelling out directions at the kids, and sometimes in a hostile and aggressive way. It seems to me that that kind of coaching never helps a runner to do their best, and really only serves as a distraction. We Catholics and Christians can learn from our Pope’s example as he models our core mission. Francis is helping those who are both inside and outside of the church to have a real encounter with Jesus. He is seeking the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, by meeting people where they are and loving them.
One might say that Francis is taking a cue from Paul when he was with the Corinthians.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1Corinthians 9:19-23
Training athletes to race or humans to live in this way requires a unique set of qualities. It takes stamina to go where the people are, real care about the well-being of each one, hope to believe in their best outcome, and strategy to know the plan and execute it perfectly. This week, I saw two men doing the best coaching I’ve seen in some time, and I feel blessed to have witnessed them both.