It’s not often that I can write a column that features the rock group KISS and Pope Francis. But those two stars aligned on Sept. 1. KISS performed a concert at a small town near where we vacation in the summer, and, at the same time, Pope Francis was in Mongolia.
The town I’m talking about has a population of 1,700, although they host an off-road race event over the Labor Day weekend that brings in thousands more. Mongolia is actually the third most sparsely populated area in the world, beaten out by only Greenland and the Falkland Islands. The population of Mongolia is only 3 million, with livestock outnumbering people by a ratio of 10 to one. But the more significant figure for the pope’s visit is that there are only 1,500 Catholics in the entire country. On any given day at St. Peter’s, when Pope Francis has an audience with visitors, he’ll speak to a crowd at least 10 to 20 times that number.
What intrigued me was the news coverage of the two events. Over and over again, members of KISS and the pope were asked the same question, “Why would you visit/perform a concert to such a small audience?”
I have never been a fan of KISS, so I wasn’t tempted to attend the concert, but I was impressed with the answer given by the lead singer of KISS to the question “Why perform here?” He spoke about people in small towns enjoying the experience of a live concert as much as, if not more than, people in large cities. And, from what was reported, KISS gave them the full experience. They performed for 2 1/2 hours, but also spent time mixing with the folks in the small town. They even stopped at a tiny drive-in diner, greeting fans, signing autographs and allowing photos.
Pope Francis was asked a similar question, “Why a papal visit to a remote country with only 1,500 Catholics?” As observers of Pope Francis note, he is 86 years old and has numerous health issues. A nine-hour flight from Rome for a four-day visit filled with audiences is hardly a walk in the park for anyone that age.
And the pope’s answer was similar to the answer from KISS’s lead singer, though a bit more eloquent. He talked about the tendency in our modern world to ignore the people at the periphery.
Cynics will point out that his visit to Mongolia gave him the opportunity to visit a country that borders both Russia and China, two countries that Pope Francis has repeatedly held out an olive branch, to the frustration of the United States and our allies. When he prays for the people and the leader of Ukraine, he prays for the Russian people and Putin as well.
But I don’t think Pope Francis spent this visit looking over Mongolia’s shoulder toward Russia and China.
One of the traits of this pope is to prefer spending time with those whom we often overlook. On his visit to the United States, when invited to a dinner with political leaders, he begged off, saying he already had dinner plans — at a homeless shelter.
During Holy Week, he continues the tradition of washing the feet of people, but he’s shocked many by washing the feet of drug addicts and incarcerated women, some being Muslim.
What the pope understands and wants to point out is that people on the periphery are all around us, though they are so often invisible.
I have my doubts that Pope Francis listens to KISS to relax, but I am certain that he would understand and approve of the recent KISS concert in that little town in northern Wisconsin.
When someone explains that they’re from Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, no one asks, “Where’s that?”
But isn’t that the question we’d ask if someone said they were from Crandon, Wisconsin, or Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia?
I’m grateful for the wake-up call that KISS and Pope Francis gave us this past Labor Day weekend. Something to think about as we all travel through small towns on the way to the place that we often consider not just bigger, but better.
David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].