Last weekend my wife Paula and I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, the new documentary on the life of the late Fred Rogers (the founder and host of the children’s television program “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood”).
It came as a surprise to me that his program for children, which we might think was produced in a simpler, gentler time than our own, debuted on February 7th, 1968, less than a week after the start of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
The extraordinarily calm, peaceful and deeply reassuring characters, images and tone of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” were very different from the scenes of war and violence that dominated the airwaves and the nightly news in our country during that week.
While the juxtaposition of the start of this children’s program and the Tet Offensive were coincidental, Roger’s approach to children’s programming was quite intentional, a gospel witness “wherever we find ourselves.” An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers believed that what passed for children’s television: toy and cereal commercials, violent cartoons and inane slapstick, failed to respect and speak to the complex inner emotional and spiritual lives of children. He thought they deserved much more than that from adults.
Yet he was convinced of the power of the new medium of television to engage and foster the imaginations of young children in a way that helped them to navigate the many challenges of childhood and growing up. In his slow and quiet way, he fostered in his young viewers a sense of wonder, awe and security as he invited them to contemplate the simple wonders and joys of their daily lives.
But he also found a way to speak directly, but in an age and developmentally appropriate way, to his young viewers about the difficult and frightening aspects of children’s lives from the fear of being sucked down the bathtub (he showed them they were too big for the drain!) to serious sickness and hospitalization, divorce and death. He took to heart the example of Jesus’ love and care for children, who told the disciples to “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:15)
As I reflected on the documentary, I was reminded of the Holy Father’s latest Apostolic Exhortation: Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.
Pope Francis writes: “Very often it is holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.” Reflecting on the “universal call to holiness,” one of the key spiritual teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Father stressed that baptism opens up the way to holiness for everyone in whatever state of life or situation they find themselves in.”
Fred Rogers famously (and controversially) repeatedly told his young viewers: “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.” He was criticized for unconditionally affirming children regardless of their achievements, thus, according to his critics, producing a generation of lazy and entitled young people.
But I think that misunderstands the pastoral purpose of what Rogers was attempting to do. Our worth and dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God are not something that we have to earn but is grounded in the love of God, who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Sensitive to the doubts, fears and insecurities of childhood, Rogers sought to minister to children by affirming and celebrating their very being and individual uniqueness. He invited each child to embrace the words of the psalmist: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made, your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14)
Similarly, holiness, Pope Francis teaches in his new Apostolic Exhortation, is not our own initiative or achievement, but is a response to God’s unconditional and faithful love for us, which admits of no obstacles but is overflowing and abundant even in the midst of our weakness and frailty.
It is too limited a view of holiness, the Holy Father teaches, to believe that to be a holy man or woman requires being a bishop, priest or religious. Rather, he stresses that “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”
He gives specific examples: “Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.”
In the end, holiness is the recognition that everything one has is a gift from a loving and gracious Father, a gift that only bears fruit if we give it away freely. The Argentine priest and theologian Lucio Gera, quoted by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation wrote: “to acknowledge jubilantly that our life is essentially a gift, and recognize that our freedom is a grace. This is not easy today, in a world that thinks it can keep something for itself, the fruits of its own creativity or freedom.”
As the documentary on Fred Rogers revealed, his unique call to holiness brought together his zeal for the gospel, his studies in early childhood education and child psychology and his generous desire to find new and more creative ways to engage children through television.
And it was the gift of his unique and innovative daily program over three decades that had a lasting and beneficial effect on so many children in our country. May we all continue, with God’s help, to pursue our unique and irreplaceable vocation to “be holy as God is holy.”
You can read the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation: Rejoice and Be Glad: on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World for free at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsultate.html