What power does a word have? To a writer, words are vastly important. This morning, listening to the radio, I heard the word “anodyne” and knew that, first, I didn’t know what it meant and second, I would find out before morning’s end.
“Anodyne,” I discovered, means “serving to alleviate pain” or “not likely to offend.”
How apt a definition, I thought, as I mulled over how words can so easily inspire or cause offense, and yet, how often we fling them about without appreciating their effect.
The Associated Press announced that they would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.”
Immediately, folks lined up on either side of this word debate. “Political correctness,” shouted those who throw that label at any innovation with which they disagree. Others, including many religious folks who work with immigrant people, saw wisdom in the decision. “Illegal immigrant” so quickly descends to merely “illegal” as if that singular, ugly word sums up a fellow human being whose hopes and aspirations are akin to our own.
A term that used to be freely used, including by professionals, is “mental retardation.” It was not invented or intended to be pejorative, but to define a certain level of intellectual ability. But one need only occasionally visit a school playground to realize why there’s a movement to “eliminate the R-word.”
Words fall from favor, and rightly so. But one word that always lifts the heart and never falls from grace is the word “hope.”
The season leading up to and including Lent and the triduum saw momentous things happen in our Catholic Church, and if you weren’t left speechless — wordless, as it were — by the events of this spring, you may have been like so many with whom I spoke and consistently defined this period by one word: hope.
First, we saw Pope Benedict XVI make a gracious and spirit-filled decision to step down from his weighty burdens. The ordinary Catholics I meet — the ones who reside in pews on Sunday and not in the sometimes nasty alternative universe of constant blogging — thought this move very practical and timely. Bishops resign at a certain age, why can’t a pope pass his duties to another, younger person? They saw it as a sign of, yep, hope.
Then, everyone used the word “hope” as the selection process began, and hope translated, as it so often does, into millions of silent prayers. Pope Francis, a Jesuit (which made my Ignatian heart soar), responded by asking for our blessing, and then making the significant gesture of visiting a youth prison and washing the feet of young prisoners — male, female, Catholic, Muslim. People I knew were absolutely thrilled by this.
But sadly, there are some who are harshly criticizing Pope Francis already, even his beautiful trip to the prison. Fortunately, for my adult life, I’ve remained with Catholics who, despite difficulty, live in a sense of hope.
Can we criticize a pope? Of course. We don’t belong to a cult. We belong to an ancient community that’s lived through contentious times but professes a faith in conversation with reason. We discuss, we debate.
But I want to be like the American nun interviewed on television after the pope’s selection. Why, she was asked, do you have such hope? She smiled broadly and said, “I live in hope.” That’s why I’m a Catholic. That’s where I want to live, too.