Twelve years ago, the Chaplains at the Interfaith Chapel participated in a discussion on faith and spirituality with members of the Pride Network. To be candid, I was apprehensive because I was the new Catholic priest on campus. The divide between members of the LGBT community and Catholic Church was palpable, sometimes bordering on disdain. At the meeting, another participant explained, “I’m afraid to go into a church.” I was stunned. In my confusion, I interrupted and asked, “Is that how others feel? Were they afraid to come to church?” The statement was affirmed by all participants. My heart and mind could not move past their responses. Afraid of entering a church? As a pastor, I knew there was something very wrong if the doors of a church were seen in fear by anyone. I understood discomfort but being afraid made no sense to me.
This past week, Pope Francis shocked the world with blunt language calling on the Catholic Church and people of good will to begin a new engagement. Most notably, he said, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
This is pastoral language. While many point out that Francis hasn’t changed doctrine, from a pastoral perspective, it is incorrect to say Pope Francis hasn’t changed a thing. He has. He is doing so and will continue to do so. From taking selfies, to making personal telephone calls to people who write him, to visiting jails and washing the feet of woman and non-Catholics, Francis demonstrates how he fundamentally is a pastor. Given his personality and his office, he is bringing change.
When Bishop of Rochester, Matthew Clark, received an honorary degree from UR in 2011, he recalled how it was his predecessor many years earlier, Bishop Bernard McQuaid, who served from 1868-1905, forbade Catholics from attending the University. The University was in good company because the edict also prevented Catholics from attending Cornell University. Bishop Clark noted that the time was different, culture was different, and people were different. The concern then was that one might lose their soul at a secular institution. Bishop Clark was keen to point out that institutions change, churches change, and universities change. Today, and for over 80 years, Catholics have come to the University and thrived in their faith.
It is a mistake to conclude that change happens only for the Catholic Church. I realize the humor this statement brings for the cynic. But, indeed, the change Francis is calling for goes well beyond the Church and its pastors. He is calling us all to go deeply beyond ourselves. His call is to go beyond the boundaries of political, economic, educational ideologies and for all people to go beyond themselves regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof.
When Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he replied, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech or a literary genre.”
Teaching by example, Pope Francis has a starting point which is clearly from below, not above. He is a man of simplicity of life and great humility, not the edifices of an office or a position of authority. He wants people to move past religious, economic, political, and cultural gaps. We must not limit others or ourselves because of personal histories, social realities, or sexual identity. We must truly encounter the other and God.
Pope Francis tells us how.
“Finding God in all things is not an empirical eureka. When we desire to encounter God, we would like to verify him immediately by an empirical method. But you cannot meet God this way. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God, and love of all things in God — this is the sign that you are on this right path.”
In this mystery, with great patience, mercy, and love, God truly becomes real.
The Rev. Cool is Director of
Catholic Newman Community Pastoral Care.