Still, our age does seem to be more cynical than most, and with good reason. As Mark Twain said, "Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to." When I was young, I admired presidents of the United States, religious leaders, explorers, teachers, great writers, military officers and my parents, among others.
My kids have come of age at a time when nearly every institution in American life has come to seem tainted (though I do hope their parents remain unscathed). One after another of our leaders and heroes has managed to shame himself in the past couple of decades. Americans have always been a little skeptical of politicians, but Bill Clinton (and too many others of both parties to name in recent years) has invited outright contempt and disgust. Baseball players and world champion bikers admit to doping after vigorous and protracted denials. Best-selling historians and journalists are caught plagiarizing. Teachers are having sex with their underage students. Doctors are caught taking lewd photographs of their patients. The Secret Service uses prostitutes. The most decorated and esteemed military officer of our time is forced to resign as CIA director after a sex scandal. One of the most admired college football coaches in the nation is found to have kept silent about child abuse. The Catholic Church itself has been profoundly tarnished for failing to protect children from pedophile priests.
So, for all of us, even the non-Catholics, it will be a tonic, and possibly even a little inspiring, if Pope Francis turns out to be just what he seems -- a truly Godly man who lives out his faith. He has always eschewed the trappings of office, forgoing the archbishop's palace in favor of a small apartment, cooking his own meals and riding public transportation to work rather than being chauffeured. When he was elevated to cardinal in 2001, he discouraged Argentines from flying to Rome to celebrate, urging that they give the money they would have spent on the trip to the poor instead.