I confess I was relieved to see “Satchel Paige” and not “Eucharist” trending on Twitter following President Biden’s visit with Pope Francis. On a video feed released by the Vatican, Biden regales Francis with a story about the great pitcher, for whom Biden seems to have a special fondness (Paige’s 1953 Topps baseball card is among the framed photos on the table behind the “Resolute desk” in the Oval Office). In April, Tom Shieber, senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and a leading researcher with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) tweeted, “Biden likes to tell a story about baseball pitching great Satchel Paige’s attitude towards age, ending with the quote, ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’” This was the same story he shared with the 2020 World Series–winning Los Angeles Dodgers during their July 2021 visit to the White House, and three months later with his friend the pope. Biden’s affinity for Paige was also noted by Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Interviewed on Black News Channel after Biden’s Vatican visit, Kendrick was overjoyed that Biden had recognized Paige in this global venue and imparted this particular “Satchelism,” but he was even more impressed that “the pope got it!”
Lost in threads of contested interpretations on social media was the fact that Biden was speaking to Pope Francis in one of their common languages: sport. This was no jumbled word salad, as some Biden-baiters charged. Rather, the story the president told tapped into many of Francis’s favorite themes, from the importance of the dreams of elders to the role of sport as a catalyst for social change.
Watch Francis as he leans in and listens intently to Biden’s recounting. His posture reflects his counsel in the 2019 post-synodal exhortation, Christus vivit, that “these stories take time to tell, and we should be prepared to listen patiently and let them sink in, even though they are much longer than what we are used to in social media.” For Francis, the dreams and stories of elders are necessary for building a better future. He grounds this belief in his oft-cited mantra from the prophet Joel (2:28), an affirmation that with the outpouring of the spirit our elders shall dream dreams and our young shall see visions. So he calls elders, himself included, to be “memory keepers” because “dreams are intertwined with memory.” Even painful memories serve envisioning because they “show that it is possible to emerge renewed from an experience of hardship.” In his preface to the book Sharing the Wisdom of Time, Francis affirms the value of intergenerational interdependence: “Without the witness of their elders’ lives, the plans of young people will have neither roots nor wisdom.”