Pope Francis caused some confusion near the end of his U.S. visit by meeting with Kim Davis, conscientious objector to same-sex marriage laws, and Yayo Grassi, an old student who is in a same-sex relationship. Some of the confusion can be cleared up by remembering that this pope is more messy than orchestrated. But there is a deeper reading possible. I would offer as help for understanding Pope Francis’s individual meetings a passage from the Second Vatican Council’s document on the priesthood. The Council Fathers ended the section on the relationships between priests and the laity with a reminder that priests are ordained to maintain the unity of the Church and the membership of the faithful individually.
“Finally priests have been placed in the midst of the laity to lead them to the unity of charity, ‘loving one another with fraternal love, eager to give one another precedence’ (Rom. 12:10). It is their task, therefore, to reconcile differences of mentality in such a way that no one need feel himself a stranger in the community of the faithful” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Dec. 7, 1965, #9, emphasis mine).
The beauty of this charge is that it describes the priest as someone with whom everyone feels welcome. When I think of my years of going to Church and listening to pastors and parish priests, this trait stands out in clear relief. Priests, in my experience, call individuals home to the household of God. The gift of a pastor is that no one ever feels alienated or marginalized. So what does this have to do with Pope Francis and his recent trip to the U.S.? It was my impression that through his speeches and remarks, all of which were weighty, the Pope never ventured into taking sides on issues that are politically contested. The one exception was his appeal against capital punishment, which he made with a suitable apology about his own long-held belief. (“This conviction [the protection of life] has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” Pope Francis, “Address to Congress,” Sept, 24, 2015).
In one sense the Pope’s steering clear of other controversial political issues in America was a disappointment for those looking for support for some deeply held political belief. Many perhaps looked to Pope Francis’s words to make them feel justified, or relieved, or even righteous. Instead Pope Francis went beyond expectations and spoke as the true pastor of the universal Church. His messages for the faithful were consistent with his stance that now is a time for mercy and healing and not a time for always being reminded of what the Church teaches. There is an urgency in Pope Francis’ plea to everyone to leave their security and to go out to meet others in their needs, especially the poor and those most susceptible to economic and environmental dangers. Pope Francis calls us out of ourselves, meeting us where we are with total acceptance and then calling us to join him in faithful and joyful service to others.
So, if you are wondering why he spoke to Kim Davis and Yayo Grassi, remember his priestly ministry. If you are wondering, on the other hand, why he didn’t make a public spectacle of the same, remember again his priestly ministry.
Portrait by Brother Patrick Martin, F.S.C.