The Pope and the Hugging Guru

Cambridge, MA. The Vatican was today (December 2), International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the site for an unprecedented gathering of religious leaders, signing together a Declaration of Religious Leaders against Slavery. You can read the Pope’s speech here. It includes these important words of justice and interreligious witness: “Let us call to action all persons of faith and their leaders, Governments, businesses, all men and women of good will, to lend their unwavering support and to join the movement against modern slavery, in all its forms. Supported by the ideals of our confessions of faith and our shared human values, we all can and must raise the standard of spiritual values, our joint efforts, our liberatory vision, to eradicate slavery from our planet. I pray that the Lord will grant us the grace to become a neighbour to all persons, without exception, and to provide active support whenever we encounter on our way an elderly person abandoned by all; an unjustly enslaved and mistreated worker; a refugee caught in the snares of crime; a young person walking the streets of the world, a victim of the sex trade; a man or a woman tricked into prostitution by people with no fear of God; a child mutilated for his or her organs, all of whom call out to our consciences, echoing the voice of the Lord: I assure you that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (See also Gerard O’Connell’s write-up in these pages.)

I can add here only a more specific, even personal connection. The photo with this post shows Pope Francis with Amritanandamayi Amma — Amma, Mother — one of the most well-known of globe-trotting Hindu gurus of the modern era. She is known most popularly as “the hugging guru” because, speaking only a few words of English, she simply embraces those who come to her. To her devotees, she is a physical, concrete presence of the divine, a kind of living sacrament. As I reported here several years ago, I met her once, when I offered a word of welcome at one of her American functions. I remember the brief encounter fondly, and her personal warmth.


I also had occasion this semester to give a lecture on her just the other day, sharing the presentation with a student, a disciple of Amma, who reflected on the identity of Amma for her disciples as a divine-human teacher. The productive comparison – resemblance and contrast – was with Mary, mother of Jesus, as the single human being, other than Jesus, who in Catholic piety verges on a human-divine identity. While Amma, the Hindu Mother, is in many ways different from Mary, mother of Jesus, meditating on Amma and the Blessed Mother together was instructive.

It was interesting, then, today — the last class day of the semester — to see her with the Pope today — not merely for a photo op, but to make a shared public claim, along with other religious leaders, again the evils of traffic in humans, subjected to degradation and slavery. Faith in action, faith across boundaries.


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