|“Before creating anything, God loved. That’s what God was doing: God was loving. God always loves. God is love.”|
(Chicago) November 22, 2016 — Loyola Press had great success this year launching their book, Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World. Children were delighted by it. Parents and grandparents enjoyed reading it with their families. It was the number one first communion gift on Amazon.
The book reached number five on The New York Times Best Seller list. Those signs of success were great, but they weren’t what made the most difference to us. It was the lessons we learned from the children and Pope Francis themselves.
Why? First of all, the children were amazing. Editors would wait each day in hopes of receiving another packet of letters from children living in a distant land. We were delighted, amazed, sometimes saddened, and often deeply moved by the children’s questions and the drawings that accompanied them. Because children are so present and unfiltered, their feelings of fear, wonder, gladness, tenderness, and love are right out there.
Their questions are honest — sometimes even blunt — and their drawings reveal so much of what’s going on in their young minds, and how they make sense of the world. Their words and images also reveal their hearts, and I came to thoroughly appreciate a number of qualities they displayed, as well as the spiritual director’s skill that Pope Francis exhibited as he deftly responded to each child’s question, and “the question within the question.”
Here are a few of those qualities:
• Wonder Encouraging children to ask questions invites them to share the many mysteries going on inside them, and their drawings reveal how they try to make sense of those mysteries. Perhaps this was best exemplified by Ryan, 8, from Canada, who asked, “What did God do before the world was made?” I suspect this may be one of the questions that prompted Pope Francis to say, “These questions are tough!” His holiness responded, “Before creating anything, God loved. That’s what God was doing: God was loving. God always loves. God is love.”
• Trust We received letters and drawings from a number of young refugees in Syria who were attending a temporary school established by Jesuit Refugee Service. Mohammed, 10, asks a question in the book that reflects the turbulence of his young life: “Dear Pope Francis, Will the world be again as it was in the past? Respectfully yours, Mohammed.” Pope Francis offers a call to hope. “This suffering is destined to end. It is not forever. Suffering is to be lived with hope. If we forgive one another, we will go to our future home, which will be very beautiful because it will be transfigured — completely transformed — by the presence of God.”
• Vulnerability Luca, a seven-year-old from Australia, had lost his mother just months before a sensitive teacher invited him to participate in our “Ask Pope Francis a question” exercise. Luca’s father told us his son had been unable to even talk about his mother’s death. In this exercise, Luca both revealed and overcame his vulnerability to show Pope Francis, as well as his teacher, the question that was being guarded in his heart: “Dear Pope Francis, My Mum is in heaven. Will she grow angel wings?” Pope Francis saw the depth of the question and realized it reflected a worry that his mother would become someone unknown to him. Pope Francis responded, “No, no, no! Your mom is in heaven — beautiful, splendid, and full of light. She hasn’t grown wings. She is still your mom, the person you know, but she is more radiant than ever. And she watches you and smiles at you as her son.”
• Desire to be holy So many of the letters we received reflected a universal desire to be good, even holy. A nine-year-old girl from India named Mansi asked Pope Francis, “How can I find God in me and in my family?” As any good spiritual director would, he responded by pointing to the immediate and practical opportunities before her. “You can find God in your family by loving your mom, your dad, your brothers, your sisters, your grandpa, your grandma…. Every day learn to water the grace of love toward your family. Then you will find God in your home.”
• Loving hearts The children’s questions were frequently prompted by an obvious love and active concern for members of their families. Ivan, a 13-year-old from China asked, “Will my grandpa, a non-Catholic who is not a person willing to do something evil, go to heaven when he dies?” Pope Francis responded by pointing to Jesus. “Jesus loves us so very much, and he wants all of us to go to heaven. God’s will is that everybody would be saved. Jesus walks with us until the very last moment of our lives, so that we can be with him always.” He went on to share a story of St. John Vianney, whose compassion was renown. A woman came to him distraught because her husband had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. Fr. Vianney told her, “Between the bridge and the river, there is the mercy of God.”
As a dad who struggled plenty with questions my two daughters asked me when they were young, I come away from this project amazed that Pope Francis was able to come up with such perceptive insights and responses to the five children quoted above, as well as the additional 25 children in the book — all in 90 minutes.
That speaks to me of a man who knows and appreciates children, and who has prepared and practiced over his lifetime to see deeply, care profoundly, and respond as a channel of divine compassion and grace. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., our partner in this project, was the one who recorded Pope Francis’s response to the questions.
He described the experience in the book this way: Pope Francis would “look off into space imagining the child in his mind and answer — not looking at me, but looking at the hypothetical image of Ryan, Joao, Judith, Nastya, Faith, Tom, Ivan…. In his gaze I see care, fondness. I know that he is answering them in his heart. He would love to answer them in person.”
Fortunately, Loyola Press was able to bring 12 of the children (each with a parent) to Rome to meet each other and spend a whole hour with Pope Francis. It was a magical time in which the children presented gifts from their homeland to Pope Francis and received a copy of the book from him—in effect, seeing for the first time Pope Francis’s response to their question. Both the children and the pontiff enjoyed asking each other more questions and the children sang Pope Francis a song in Spanish.
What my colleagues and I at Loyola Press learned from publishing Dear Pope Francis is that people, especially the most vulnerable, need to be seen, heard, respected, and responded to with compassion flowing from the heart of Jesus Christ. That realization made it a simple decision for Loyola Press to choose Jesuit Refugee Service when we were discerning where we would donate a portion of the proceeds from sales of the book, because JRS sees and responds to some of the most urgent human needs of our time.
Loyola Press has shared the content of Dear Pope Francis with 16 other Jesuit publishing houses around the world. The book is available in 22 countries and 19 languages, most recently in Arabic. When the children speak, the world should listen.
By Tom McGrath
Director of Trade Books, Loyola Press, Chicago
When you buy Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World and other books — or anything else — from Amazon, be sure to use the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA AmazonSmile portal. A portion of your purchase will be donated to Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, at no additional cost to you. Click here to visit the JRS/USA AmazonSmile portal.