All I remember is that awkward moment of reunion, of meeting, of connection; of reaching out between the least likely of people.
Kurt Cobain, the unforgettable face of ’90s grunge rock, stood uncomfortably onstage with his hands by his side. He was dressed in a wrinkled black T-shirt and ripped jeans. His characteristic stringy, bleached-blond hair hung in his eyes. Just then a large jovial man came onstage. I recognized the current “smiling cardinal” of New York City.
The two men made an odd pair. Cardinal Dolan, conspicuous in his hot-pink zucchetto and red vestments, was oblivious to the awkwardness of the situation. He stretched out his hand toward the grunge rocker. His whole body seemed to lean toward Kurt, as if the smiling cardinal were on a boat, reaching to help a swimmer climb aboard. Kurt didn’t hesitate; he took his hand. And then they both smiled.
This is just a snippet of a dream I had the other night. I can’t remember the rest. All I remember is that awkward moment of reunion, of meeting, of connection, of reaching out between the least likely of people.
When I woke up I laughed, amused that my brain had created such a surreal scenario for me to contemplate. What made my dream more absurd was that I had not given a thought to Nirvana, the band Kurt Cobain is famous for singing in, for years.
Like many teenagers in the ’90s, I used to have some of Nirvana’s albums. I still appreciate songs, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies,” which undoubtedly shaped the future of music, but my younger brother’s love for Nirvana went much deeper than mine.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994, the world was shocked but not surprised. My brother bought a commemorative shirt with a huge photo on it of the man who once said, “If my eyes could show my soul, everyone would cry when they saw me smile.” The singer’s birth and death dates were emblazoned at the bottom. For months, the shirt made my brother a walking tombstone.
Kurt’s death so affected my brother, and many others in the ’90s, that most teenagers at the time, Nirvana fans or not, were marked by his tragic death.
As I thought about my dream today, I contemplated that moment of reaching out. I thought about how Cardinal Dolan’s reaching hand could represent the hands of all Catholics who are called to reach out to the world, to the people we least expect will convert, to the fallen-away Catholics who say they will never come back, to the depressed, to the hungry, to the lonely, to the angry, to the people on the fringes of the Church, and even further beyond.
It is always a risky gesture to reach out. Some will grasp your hand, others will not. Some will listen, others will not. Some will inch away from you, others will not. Some will slap your hand away and never look at you again. Some will turn away but then turn back, years down the line.
And then there is always the problem of the people already in the boat. Some people will see you reaching out and be scornful and angry that you are inviting people in who will create discomfort, moments of awkwardness, and possible scandal.
But God does not ask us to worry about any of that. He just asks us to reach out, even when hope barely flickers. To be the bridge in case others want to cross.
Pope Francis’ friendship with the Italian atheist reporter Eugenio Scalfari (who has quite the dubious memory) reminds me of Cardinal Dolan’s hand reaching out to Kurt Cobain. There is room for scandal. There is room for rejection. And there is ample room for misunderstanding. (I don’t think I am the only one who sometimes thinks Pope Francis should give up on the man, or at least refuse him interviews.)
But there is also room for dialogue, for growth in understanding, for mutual transformation and for conversion.
This is mercy.
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