By Orlando R. Barone
The stole is a priestly garment in Catholic practice. It is worn to signal that God's grace is being poured forth. It welcomes the infant to the baptismal font and sends the elderly on their final journey home. It is donned hastily on the battlefield to apply the balm of forgiveness and mercy, and carefully in preparation for preaching the word and distributing the Eucharist.
For months now, Lori Lasher, a partner in one of Philadelphia's premier law firms, has been working on a special stole. Hand spun from the yarn of 14 different animals, the rough-looking strip of cloth will be presented to Pope Francis when he arrives in Philadelphia this week for the World Meeting of Families. Lasher said, "I'm especially proud that one of the animals used was the Falkland sheep," native to the pope's South American homeland.
"It was at lunch with Sister Mary Scullion that we came up with the idea of the stole," Lasher told me. She has been delivering pro bono legal services to the homeless for 20 years, many of those years with Project Home, where Scullion is the executive director.
The final decorations for the stole are not ornate gildings of precious threads. They are a plethora of tiny knots, entwined into the fabric by many hands, of the sick, the homeless, the poor, the imprisoned, and everyday people of every faith. Lasher has carried the cloth to shelters, prisons, soup kitchens, and mosques.
The stole is accompanied by a journal containing the handwritten entries of everyone who contributed a knot. The knots, of course, celebrate Francis' beloved Virgin Mary, Undoer of Knots; the contributing animals symbolize the love of the pope's namesake, Francis of Assisi, for all life, and the journal captures a world of struggles, knots, from life-threatening addiction and illness to lifelong incarceration.
The stole brings to the World Meeting of Families those who could never otherwise attend. Lasher said, "Pope Francis can touch the knots tied by these people and take them with him." The journal joins their hopes and prayers to those of the thousands attending the World Meeting.
Among the journal entries is one offering a "prayer for all the families of the world, that every person be reunited in faith and purpose."
Another person hopes "that every person be treated equal."
One notes, "I struggle with not having my daughter and my family. Please help me."
"Peace and blessings on the world's children," another entry says.
Many of the prayers surprise you with their selflessness. This entry is typical: "I would like poverty to come to an end. Also for homeless people to get places to live . . . most of all for abused children to be able to experience love and happiness."
Lasher was deeply impressed by a stricken man, scarred, bent, with only one eye. Certain he would ask for relief for himself, she glanced at the four words he penned: "Pray for my kids."
"He didn't think of himself at all," she marveled.
As I read through the journal I realized how important is the presence of these families, often broken and in great pain, how singular their modest hopes, how shameful our casual neglect of them. They are, after all, those Pope Francis has termed "thrown away." Lasher has gathered them up.
In pondering what this all meant, I consulted my wife.
"There are multiple themes," I said, "the stole, knots, the marginalized, families, 14 animals. What unites them?"
She shot me a look. "Are you kidding?"
"Lonnie, the theme is giving," she said. "Those animals give their coats; the pope gives his compassion; the poor give their prayers; the stole gives God's blessing."
The stole, a channel of grace. And what is grace but a gift freely given? That grace flowed to Lori Lasher, who said she received much more than she contributed. "And I'm not a Catholic," she added.
It is just a ragged piece of cloth, knotted with suffering, hand-spun with hope. It represents the gentle hand of a giving God reaching down to wipe a tear, evoke a smile, push us toward one another in mercy and compassion.
"I have been homeless for a year now," one journal entry said, "and because of this my kids are with family members ... I'd like housing so my family and I will be whole again."
Orlando R. Barone, a writer in Doylestown, is attending this week's World Meeting of Families. firstname.lastname@example.org