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Of Popes and Trolls

By October 19, 2015 2 Comments

Just after Pope Francis arrived at the Philadelphia airport last month, he stopped his driver on the tarmac and made his way over to a wheelchair-bound child he’d noticed. He leaned over and blessed the boy. Then the moment was over and he went on his way.

Journalist Julie Zauzmer wrote this article for the Washington Post last week: “The world saw Pope Francis bless a boy with cerebral palsy. Here’s what we didn’t see.” In it she paints a richer portrait of the family whose unexpected photo-op went viral. The boy is Michael Keating, he has a twin brother and older sister, and he lives with his parents outside of Philadelphia. The high school band his father directs was invited to play for the Pope’s arrival in Philadelphia, and that’s how the Keating family ended up making the trek to the airport. They almost didn’t bring Michael along because of the complexities of transporting a child with so many medical and supportive care needs. But he went, and his Catholic parents were of course deeply moved by Pope Francis’ impromptu blessing.

The article drew me in; it resonated with what I’ve seen and heard in my work as a pediatric chaplain–parents of children with various kinds of illnesses or disabilities sharing honestly about the short and long term physical, emotional, financial and spiritual challenges that can dominate their family life. Sharing, too, about the intricacies of their relationships with their children, even when those children have extremely limited capacities like Michael Keating’s. There are common threads in such stories, as well as myriad unique details. I found myself so glad to see a journalist like Zauzmer taking the opportunity to tell the Keatings’ story. The general public has such a limited understanding of what children like Michael and their families face.

That limited understanding was on full display in some of the comments that readers posted in response to the article. I knew I shouldn’t have read them—is there ever an online comment discussion that doesn’t feature a troll or two, those people who seem to have nothing better to do than to drop insulting words or try to pick a fight with all of cyberspace? Then again, I realize these so-called trolls often firmly believe what they state, as offensive as it may be to others. I guess this is part of what we all signed up for with the internet. And of course most commenters tend to be those whose response lies at one extreme or the other, and the rest of us in the middle simply read the article and ponder it or perhaps even discuss it with other human beings in real life. In any case, while the comments on this article include plenty of readers grateful for a richly told story, there are others who nearly drool over the opportunity to criticize religion, the Pope, Catholicism, any suggestion of the miraculous, and so on. They scoff at the notion that the blessing really meant anything. One reader is incredulous that parents like the Keatings would willingly choose to adopt Michael and his twin knowing that their extremely premature birth would lead to disability. Another is incensed that our education system spends resources on school for such disabled kids; this reader says ten “real” students could probably be educated for the money we spend on kids like Michael. Others are quick to point out the hypocrisy they see in the Keating’s attempts at in vitro fertilization prior to adopting their children, since Catholic teaching does not support such reproductive technologies.

I wish I could ignore how much these trollish comments bother me, but I can’t. To me they reflect aspects of a culture that is increasingly cynical about religion and about resources, and that is unable or unwilling to acknowledge, much less engage in, the moral complexities of everyday life.

Frankly, even positive comments about what an “angel” or “inspiration” Michael is can bother me; they too easily gloss over the messy realities of suffering and sacrifice that his family has experienced. Likewise, extolling his parents as “saints” isn’t entirely helpful; it casts them as superhuman, instead of admitting that they are regular people who responded in a particular way to a particular situation that life presented them. Ascribing sainthood to them lets the rest of us off the hook too easily. True, not every parent would or could make the choices the Keatings have made, but if we cast them as saints, we overlook the humbling possibility that perhaps we too, ordinary folks all of us, might have the capacity to respond with sacrificial love and mercy in the face of life circumstances that stretch us to our limits. And that we, ordinary folks all of us, right now have the capacity to respond in our own ways with our own resources to the needs of others around us who are bearing such weight. Stories like Michael’s present us with a reminder of the manifold needs of the vulnerable in society. We can respond with cynicism and judgment, or we can reach deeper into our humanity and wrestle with our differing convictions and commitments.

I think that’s part of what Pope Francis’ sudden stop was meant for. I don’t pretend to know his intentions, but if I had to guess, I would bet that he was wisely using another opportunity to take the spotlight that was on him 24-7 and cast it momentarily on someone else whose life deserves illumination. Every camera lens was trained on Pope Francis, and he invited our gaze to fall not on himself but on one weak and unnoticed by society’s standards. I see you, Francis’ actions said. You are worth my time and attention.

Such simple actions, available to us all, yet still so achingly rare. Notice. Stop. Bless, and do not curse.


(photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)


  • Sara Tolsma says:

    I watched the movie, St. Vincent, last night. Thank you for reinforcing the film’s message that we are all called to be saints – that “we, ordinary folks all of us, right now have the capacity to respond in our own ways with our own resources to the needs of others around us who are bearing such weight.”

  • Thanks for this fine piece. My 10-year old granddaughter recently asked me to read a book she had liked. It’s “Out of My Mind,” by Sharon Draper, the story of a young girl with cerebral palsy. It’s written for young readers, but I heartily recommend it for all adults. A heart-breaking glimpse into the world of a child with Cerebral Palsy.

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