The Passing Game

I coach basketball at my school in Tanzania for many students who are just learning the game. One thing I have learned is that new players often struggle with passing the ball to a moving teammate. Their first instinct is to pass to where the person is, but if the teammate is running forward, he will be ahead of the ball by the time it gets to where he was.

This image of passing to where a person was and not where he is going seems relevant to a number of contemporary issues. The times are changing, but we can be slow to respond.

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Many recent articles have highlighted how the economic situation in Mexico has greatly improved and that far fewer Mexicans are emigrating to the United States. Now the net transfer between Mexico and the United States is close to zero.

Our political discourse, however, often does not reflect such a changed situation. We still focus on supposed solutions to prevent further immigration on our southern border, even when it is now significantly reduced, but we do little to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already here.

Often, we focus on issues when they are less significant but ignore them when they are far more serious. The viral video “Kony 2012” highlighted atrocities committed by Joseph Kony in northern Uganda. By 2012, however, Kony had been chased out of Uganda and wielded far less power than when the conflict in northern Uganda was active but mostly ignored by outside media.

On a personal level, while I am still a young teacher, I am often slow to see how what was significant during my formative years might not be the same for students today. My issues might not be their issues. Significant mediums for communicating with others like Facebook did not even exist when I was a high school student, but they play a prominent role in students’ lives now. (I recently heard that Facebook is no longer cool for many students—things continue to change.)

I don’t feel the need to follow every new and passing fad—and would fail miserably if I even tried—but I worry that I will look at others’ experiences solely through my own lens and not be sensitive to how things have changed and continue to change.

Of course, there are eternal questions and an ever-relevant Gospel, though I have sat through more than a few homilies and dinnertime pontifications that seemed more appropriate for 1973 than 2013. At the same time, I know I have unfairly treated the experience of my students in 2013 as if it were my experience in 2003 and will be tempted to continue to do this, even when it is 2053.

I hope I will have the courage to ask others when I am simply out of touch with their experience and will have the humility to listen to their answers. Fortunately, I now have a great example in Pope Francis.

Amid many interesting and inspiring nuggets in his landmark interview, printed in this magazine (9/30), I was struck by his comfort with change, both on the level of the church and on a personal level.

He says, “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning,” and he argues that “those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things.”

To use a sports analogy, he’s saying that we as a church make a mistake when we try to pass the ball to where our teammates have been and fail to anticipate how they are moving and where they are going.

In looking at his own life, Pope Francis freely admits that he has made mistakes, especially in leadership, and that his most salient identity is that of a sinner. At the same time, he has learned from his past and continues to be a learner, even as he teaches the rest of us. He continues to grow and is attentive to how the world and church are changing.

As for me, a fellow Jesuit who is nearly half a century the pope’s junior, I am inspired. I’m often afraid of change and can get annoyed if I must eat something different for breakfast, let alone change something more significant. At the same time, if the pope can so readily practice openness to change while steering such a large institution, perhaps there is hope for me too.

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