Many publications have been running their “Best of 2013” listicles and slideshows for a couple of weeks already. Our thoughts, inevitably, become reflective, turning backward, recognizing that in just a few days, novelty will abound: a new year, new diets, new resolutions, new goals, and new hopes.
But before 2014 rolls in, I’ve been thinking about the events in the Catholic Church in 2013.
Way back in February, I woke up to a text message from a friend. “Um, the pope?!” he asked. I jolted out of bed, grabbed my computer, and logged on to Twitter. Pope Benedict, I quickly learned, became the first pope in 700 years to leave office of his own volition.
Because no one had died in office, the media was able to jump into the papal horse race more quickly than if we were forced to wait for a funeral, with the concomitant grieving and eulogies. My heart swelled with the idea that Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley was considered to be a leading contender. O’Malley is my hometown prelate and a picture of him and me sits on my bookshelf at work. It’d be pretty cool, I thought, to have a picture with the pope.
Pope Francis has reminded Catholics, other Christians, people of other and no faiths, that the Christian message is, at its core, about God’s love for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Once the doors to the Sistine Chapel were shut, we waited. At work, I turned my computer to one of the many livestreams available from all the major networks, hoping for a glimpse of white smoke. Finally, after the fifth ballot, the church had a new pope. Bergoglio, they exclaimed.
Figuring out the answer to that question has been fascinating, joyful, inspiring. And it’s given me, and countless others, an entirely fresh perspective on the church.
That Pope Francis is beloved by Catholics and so many others around the world is well documented at this point. Many of the reasons why are captured in this analysis of the pope’s first year in the New Yorker, written by former Paulist priest and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll.
The ascent of Francis has reminded me that the institutional church can be a place of welcome for all people, not comprised of a small, pure group of believers, but a big tent, as James Joyce described it, “Here comes everybody.”
Francis was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Less known, however, is that he was also named Person of the Year by the Advocate, the nation’s largest magazine covering LGBT issues. He was number two on the New Yorker’s list of Top Ten Gay-Rights Heroes of 2013. These accolades make traditionalists cringe. But they give me hope.
Catholics who identify as gay face certain obstacles in our faith lives. Even as we gain more acceptance in civil society, the Catholic Church, especially in this country, has doubled down on the “intrinsically disordered” section of the Catechism. Some teachers at Catholic schools have lost their jobs. Some couples have been denied the sacraments. And some bishops have threatened to pull support for immigration reform because proposed laws would recognize same-sex partners as worthy of equal treatment under the law.
Pope Francis, it seems, cuts through the noise, reminding us that the Gospel is certainly bigger than same-sex marriage and abortion. He said as much in his now famous interview with America: “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Many Catholics who are gay live our spiritual lives at the parish level, attending Mass, volunteering for parish activities, receiving the Eucharist. Sure, we can’t marry in the church, but generally, we seek the same spiritual nourishment as our Catholic brothers and sisters. And for most Catholics in the pews, the harsh words that sometimes emanated from Rome, as well as from some of our leaders here, went unheard.
But my work is largely to think about the church, so I paid attention. When same-sex marriage was called a threat to the survival of humanity, I heard that. When gay-rights advocated were compared to the KKK, I heard that. And when some Catholic leaders railed against basic non-discrimination laws weaving their way through Congress, I heard that.
Pope Francis, apparently, did too, and he’s said in reply, Enough.
Those who believe in greater equality for gays and lesbians don’t love Francis because he’s changing the doctrine of the church. We love him because he’s living the Gospel, joyfully, challenging all to consider how we’re serving the least among us. It’s simple. Radically simple.
Without a doubt, 2014 will not be as kind to Francis as 2013. Those wishing to see reform in how the church is managed will be disappointed by the glacial pace at which things change. Those resisting even small change will lash out, trying to impede progress. Those who pin hope on Francis ushering in an era more hospitable to women, gays, divorced and remarried Catholics, and others who have felt marginalized, will, I suspect, see their hopes remain a bit unfulfilled.
But this change at the Vatican — and it is significant change, in tone and message — is still wildly important. Pope Francis has reminded Catholics, other Christians, people of other and no faiths, that the Christian message is, at its core, about God’s love for all people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
At this time of year, we’re particularly perceptive to that message. Perhaps Francis’s greatest accomplishment is that he’s been able to make that message cool and relevant for the past eight months. That he’ll be able to keep this up over the next several years will be on my mind this holiday season.
This program aired on December 30, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.