“They should have just given each of us a box of Kleenex when we bought our ticket.”
I overheard this remark as I was leaving the theater after watching the new documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I confess that I was wiping a tear from my eye as I heard the sniffles of others doing the same around me.
Goodness can do this to a person, touching one’s heart. Radical, lifelong decency. This was the message Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, preached. But he didn’t share this from a pulpit or altar. Rather, his “preaching” was communicated through songs, puppets, a make-believe world and his very presence in 895 television shows over 30 years. His “congregation” was children under 10 years old. And his style was as old as the oldest humans, and as powerful as the parables of Jesus.
I confess that I never saw “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” when I was growing up. I was already in high school when his show debuted on WQED. (My brothers and I were raised watching the antics and slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges, on Paul Shannon’s “Adventure Time.”) I was vaguely familiar with Mister Rogers’ public image, with his cardigan sweater, deliberate delivery and smiling face.
So seeing Mister Rogers perform in the many excerpts from his shows was something of a revelation to me. How could one person be this kindly? At a visit to a school, one of the children asked him, “Are you for real?” As I watched the documentary, that same question went through my mind. The cynical show-biz saying goes, “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
To his credit, director Morgan Neville does not shy away from this challenge. Was Mister Rogers just an actor? Surely no one could be such a straight arrow in life as on stage. But the many testimonials of those around him said, yes, he was exactly the same man on both sides of the camera.
After listening to the down-to-earth comments about the thorough goodness of Fred Rogers by his wife, sons, co-workers on the set and guests, another question arose in my mind. “Why can we — why can’t I — be this good?” It is the perennial challenge of taking the basics of our Christian faith and deliberately putting them into practice, in a world filled with sin. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” addressed the sad realities of our world: assassinations, racism, divorce, separations, even death. Through it all, Mister Rogers said in so many ways, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Coincidentally — and providentially — at the same time this excellent documentary appeared in local theaters, our own bishop was saying the same thing in a different language for a national audience. Bishop David Zubik’s article, “Nine rules for civility from the Catholic tradition,” appeared in the July 9 edition of America, a bi-weekly magazine published by the Jesuits of the U.S. and Canada. He wrote, “Civility assumes that the ties that bind us are far more important than the differences we have on important social and political issues. ... and requires us to work together.”
Among his rules are the importance of empathic listening, respect for those who disagree with me in honest dialogue, pursuit of the common good, inclusion of all members of society, not casting doubt on the motives of those who disagree with you and the willingness to be self-critical. Bishop Zubik said it is just as important for us to be civil with members of other Christian communities and other faiths as it is to be civil with our fellow Catholics. In an image near to the bishop’s heart, he calls his readers to be bridge-builders “who call the diverse members of our society to common ground.”
Christian decency toward all people. Integrity of words and actions. Civility in society and church. These are important values we don’t often talk about, but are needed more than ever in today’s polarized world. Don’t we want to see and hear more of them? Then let us attempt to make them our own.
Father Almade is pastor of Mary, Mother of Hope, St. Joseph the Worker, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus parishes in New Castle. Bishop Zubik’s article can be read at https://tinyurl.com/y9dgb5sy.