The Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Me

A reporter’s unlikely pilgrimage to see two world religious leaders.

I touched the Dalai Lama‘s hands less than a month ago. In April, I personally received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI.

That’s a lot of high-powered religious energy floating around — but I’m not sure yet how it might have changed me.

Sure, I learned a lot by covering both of these men for the newspaper where I work. For example, I learned that covering major world religious leaders isn’t nearly as glamorous as one might imagine. I hung out in the McDonald’s in Union Station while writing a story about the Pope in Washington, D.C.; when I followed him to New York City, I stayed at a Super 8. And when the Dalai Lama visited my town of Bethlehem, PA, I was part of the pool of reporters from around the world who piled into a yellow school bus to get to the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s speaking venue.

On a related note, I learned that we reporters are whiners. What do you mean there’s no WiFi signal here in the upper decks of 85-year-old Yankee Stadium during the papal Mass? How can there be no WiFi? We were PROMISED WIFI!

But there must be more to this than glib observations, more than Secret Service background checks and hotel stays and datelines and bomb dogs sniffing my laptop. Millions of people from around the world go on pilgrimages to see these two holy men; they return home saying their lives have been transformed.

I got to see both of them in person within less than six months, which I suppose is a sort of miracle in itself. Then again, I hadn’t exactly set out to make this pilgrimage in the first place.

My chance to cover the pope and the Dalai Lama grew out of my work as a religion reporter for The Morning Call newspaper. I had been building my reputation with stories on things like on how Hassidic Jews make matzoh and how the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem was handling the church’s debate on gay priests.

Then we learned the pope was coming to two cities within easy driving distance of our part of eastern Pennsylvania. In addition, the Dalai Lama was coming right to us for a six-day visit, because of a nearby Tibetan Buddhist institution‘s connection to a local university. I jumped when my bosses gave me a shot at both events, but the spiritual significance seemed almost beside the point.

On my own, I probably never would have made any kind of pilgrimage to see Benedict. As someone who grew up believing that “liberal Catholic” isn’t an oxymoron, I was dismayed when the College of Cardinals decided to replace the charismatic Pope John Paul II with his elderly adviser Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. I regarded him as John Paul’s doctrinal sledgehammer, someone who went around whacking people and institutions that dared question any questionable (in my view) church teachings.

At least I had an opinion about Benedict; I knew the Dalai Lama only as an image on a billboard, wearing a monk’s robes and glasses that appeared to be from the Discount Emporium of Communist-Era Eyewear. Instead of a man’s face, I saw world peace stock art.

For centuries in Christendom, people have made pilgrimages to venerate relics — what are believed to be the physical remnants of saints. Most of them are body parts: this saint’s finger bones, that one’s skull, the other one’s toenail clippings.

It’s an admittedly creepy practice, but I’m starting to see the beauty in it. The relics show that these weren’t angels or otherworldly beings — they were just humans who found ways to be holy. It almost doesn’t matter whether the relics are truly parts of the saint or are merely anonymous bones pawned off on credulous pilgrims in the Middle Ages.

We believe Jesus was God who walked among us as a man, but he took his body with him and left behind only (maybe) a shroud with his face on it. But this saint, we say, he was a schlub just like the rest of us, and he managed to become holy — to become great in the Lord. And we can prove it! Look, here’s his femur!

I saw Benedict three times in his Popemobile, each time accompanied by screaming crowds and throngs of believers singing Alleluias. Watching him closely, though, I learned he’s no rock star — and he never really wanted to become one (that was John Paul II’s calling).

Benedict would rather be in his classroom, continuing as the theology professor he always was; his ideas, too nuanced and complex to be contained in sound-bites, can only be expressed in paragraphs. And believe me, that’s a frustrating revelation for a reporter sitting in Yankee Stadium, trying to capture the messages Benedict expressed during the Mass for a story on a tight deadline. (I made sure that his blessing at the end of the Mass included my laptop and press pass, but I’m not sure how much that helped.)

The most revelatory moment happened when I was off deadline, as I watched another papal event on my TV back at the Super 8. As thousands of young Catholics screamed and chanted, I watched Benedict’s smile freeze in place and his eyes glass over. But minutes later they came alive again when he pulled aside each of the young people who spoke at the prayer service — forgetting the crowds to have a brief but very real conversation with each teenager.

He wasn’t a hammer, he wasn’t a rock star; he was a man and a pastor ministering the best way he could.

The Dalai Lama, in contrast, doesn’t seem to mind the attention he gets. I imagine it’s impossible for him to be truly humble when everyone has told him since age three that he’s basically a god.

But in addition to his deeply wise teachings about compassion and nonviolence, he’s also profoundly human. I heard him giggle when his hosts fumbled a bit during an opening ritual; he then good-naturedly reached over and helped straighten things out. I watched him scratch his head and yawn and make jokes about his long-windedness.

More than anything else, I became convinced that he truly practices the compassion that he preaches. True good-heartedness is the only way he could have survived a lifetime in exile, isolated from his homeland and constantly vilified by the Chinese government.

I, with my notebook in hand, was part of the crush of people jammed against an orange security fence as he stepped out of the venue on his visit’s last day. Someone to my right called out to him, and he beamed and hobbled over to us, flanked by agents from the State Department.

He stopped almost directly in front of me. “Oh!” he said, recognizing an old acquaintance of his who was standing beside me and reaching over the fence to hug him.

Then, as he started moving again, he gently touched my outstretched hands. There was no tingle, no flash of fire or lightning. There was just a sense of peace amidst the excitement — a sense that one man’s simple acts truly can bring joy to many.

I’m no monk or bishop or world leader; I’m just a dad, a husband, a reporter. Then again, this pilgrimage was never about miraculous transformations. It was about encountering, and learning from, two of my fellow human beings.

Article © 2008 by Michael Duck