I just finished reading Amy Hollingsworth’s book, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers and saw the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Both the book and the movie are equally poignant stories about this icon of children’s television, Fred Rogers. If you grew up between 1968 and 2001, or were the parent of a child during this period, you may have watched this daily, educational show. The PBS series, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, was a safe place for children to learn about the importance of expressing feelings, how to deal with new and scary moments and to feel valued as human beings.
The persona he showed on camera of kindness, compassion, and friendship was the same persona he showed to others off-camera. He lived what he preached and the spiritual legacy behind his words and actions are both simplistic and profound. He always offered hope and encouragement, telling his viewers:
“Don’t ever give up on yourself or your dreams. You’re worthwhile, and always will be, no matter what. Just remember to always be who you are, because that person is very special. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.”
Though some mocked/ridiculed him and his television show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he wanted children to hear and believe that they were unique and special. In the show’s opening theme song, Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” he expresses a desire to be neighbors with his young viewers, immediately extending a caring hand of friendship. In his closing song, It’s Such a Good Feeling, he affirms what a good feeling it is to be friends with these young viewers. During this closing song, he speaks these endearing words:
“You always make each day such a special day. You know how: by just your being you. There’s only one person in the whole world exactly like you, and that’s you yourself, and people can like you exactly as you are.”
Imagine if every child (and every adult) heard and believed these words daily. For Mister Rogers believed that “The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”
According to Hollingsworth, even Mister Rogers’ ritual of changing from a suit coat into a cardigan sweater and from dress shoes to tennis shoes was designed intentionally to have a calming effect and to teach children the importance of slowing down. He wanted children to know the value of feelings, to know that feelings of anger, hurt, sadness were all right and “that you don’t have to hide them and that there are ways that you can say how you feel that aren’t going to hurt you or anybody else.” (Hollingsworth, 61-62)
Walking out of the movie theater, I wanted to stay and see it again so I could soak up the inspirational messages Mister Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) imparts to the man he befriends, Lloyd Vogel, who is an investigative reporter assigned to profile Mister Rogers. Vogel is skeptical of Mister Roger’s good nature but is changed by the compassion and friendship Mister Rogers extends to him. Vogel is initially annoyed by Mister Rogers’ gentle questioning of Vogel’s painful past with his father but the support and affirmation he receives from Mister Rogers enables him to reconcile with his father. Mister Rogers even comes to be with Vogel’s family when Vogel’s father is dying and asks the dying father to pray for him, a moment where he sees the gift of a dying man being able to bring him closer to God.
In an interview with Fred Rogers, Hollingsworth quotes him as saying “And so, for me, being quiet and slow is being myself, and that is my gift.” Being able to acknowledge his own gifts enabled him to serve others well. Closely related to this gift of being quiet and slow, was appreciating silence. Hollingsworth notes about Mister Rogers that “It wasn’t just the absence of noise he advocated, but silence that reflects on the goodness of God, the goodness of what and whom He made. Silence to think about those who have helped us. He knew that silence leads to reflection, reflection to appreciation, and that appreciation looks for someone to thank.” (Hollingsworth, p.7)
Someone who Mister Rogers appreciated was his close friend, Henri Nouwen, a well-known Catholic priest, author, and theologian, whose spiritual writings inspired and influenced him. Although he was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian faith, Mr. Rogers had ties to Catholicism. Speaking of his friend, Rogers noted how Nouwen taught him the importance of silence, writing that “Even though most of the world knows Henri by his words, I’ve come to recognize his deepest respect for the still, small voice among the quiet of eternity. That’s what continues to inspire me.” (Hollingsworth, p.12)
Whether reading the book or watching the movie, the lessons learned from Mister Rogers’ humility, his sincerity, his authenticity, and his wisdom make you want to be a better person. His ministry and purpose in life centered on seeing and affirming the good in people and helping those he met to see the good in themselves. He rarely spoke about his faith on his show, but his inspirational messages flowed from a life of prayer and served to communicate a message of love and compassion for self and our neighbor, just as Jesus did.
Are you eager to be a neighbor to those in need, to those seeking a deeper meaning in life? Why not consider exploring a call to religious life as a Sister? Come and be a neighbor to God’s people. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you discern God’s call in your life.