There’s been a regular giddiness in the USA this week because of the arrival of the Pope. People are in awe. They’re falling over themselves to get a glimpse of him, making the pilgrimage to Washington, New York, or Philadelphia to cheer him. A joint session of Congress plus the Supremes gave him standing ovations. 50,000 people watched on the West Lawn on four jumbotrons so no detail would be missed. On to the UN for a big speech! 1.5 million pilgrims are expected to hear the papal mass at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia. All the networks are hanging on his words, beaming them out to us for our edification, even to the 75% of Americans who are not Catholics. And it’s a good message: you guys are rich, so take care of the poor.
At the same time another even larger pilgrimage has resulted in tragedy as over 700 people were killed in a crush during the Hajj, the journey to Mecca that all Muslims must make in their lifetimes. There have been crushes and stampedes before during the Hajj, lots of them in fact. Now Iran is blaming the Saudis, accusing them of incompetence at managing such enormous crowds.
But let’s back up and ask a larger question: what’s going on with these pilgrimages? Why do so many people put their lives on hold, or their lives at risk to undertake these journeys to begin with? In the case of the Hajj, knowing there’s a potential for death, and a particularly horrible death at that, why do they come in the millions? Or why would you drop everything and fly to the East Coast to stand in a street cheering a man who you only see briefly driving by in a car?
What’s at work here is the power of faith. It’s astonishing, really. Here we are creating technological marvels by the boatload and figuring out all kinds of answers to how the natural world works, pushing aside old superstitions from ancient worldviews, but still there lingers that part of our beings that desperately wants to link up with something larger than ourselves. We take a humble man from Argentina and decide he’s now the Vicar of Christ, ruling from the Chair of St. Peter with a direct line to God, infallible in his pronouncements. Of course it was the Curia who chose him, but we go with it and make him a celebrity with all the media frenzy that goes with it.
For Muslims the Hajj is one of the five pillars of their faith. They must risk their lives and go, taking part in all the various parts of the ritual, including throwing pebbles at a wall symbolizing the devil which is where the stampede usually occurs. It’s astonishing–this compulsion, this incredible pull with so many people sacrificing so much to make this trip. Let no one deny the power religion still holds over billions of people.
It’s also what I call the Sacrament of the Group. We want very badly to belong to something. If we’re Catholic, being in that body of believers with its rites and history and places of worship gives us comfort. It grounds us in an unstable world full of challenges and troubles. If we’re Muslim, knowing that there are others like us, praying like we do, celebrating the same holy days, following the same rules, brings us contentment and a sense that all is right in the world. At times, we may experience a transcendence in the company of our co-religionists that is like no other experience on earth. When we’re in a crowd of like-minded people, waiting for the Pope to arrive we can become overwhelmed, weep, or laugh hysterically. Pilgrims arriving in Mecca sometimes weep as well, and by taking on this arduous journey, by taking part in these rituals in 100 degree heat, restricting their diets, shaving their heads, they are meant to experience submission and obedience, to have their sins forgiven and, in short, get right with God.
If only we could channel those kinds of energies beyond our groups into a feeling that we’re all citizens of the world–humanists. That’s really the Pope’s message and I would like to think the true message of Islam. We have to take care of each other—not just our own people but everyone who needs our help. Whenever Muslims mention the Prophet, they add “peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.” If only that were extended by all of us to all of us. Could we ever get to that point without the need for masses, rituals, and pilgrimages? Or without the cult of celebrity around someone like Pope Francis?