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A journalist recently asked what I thought about possible changes in the Catholic Church with our new pope. He specifically wanted to know if I expected that relationships with women would improve. I responded that I live in hope, and the journalist laughingly remarked that he had received exactly that response from every woman he had asked.
Yes, many of us are hopeful, based mostly on the initial actions and words of Pope Francis. We are heartened that he has reached out in humility to groups such as the detainees at a Roman youth detention center, where he washed the feet of young men and women on Holy Thursday. Including the young women was unprecedented.
My deepest hope is that he will lead our church in embracing all people who feel they have been marginalized or cast out because of stridency and cruelty they have encountered in our church. Too often we have been a hurtful structure rather than a caring community. Members of LGBT communities have been particularly harmed, and that is wrong.
The Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus teaching us to reach out to and welcome those who have been marginalized by others. Jesus reached out to the lepers, healed the Roman occupier’s son, asked the Samaritan woman for help, and prevented the woman taken in adultery from being stoned by judgmental men. Pope Francis seems to understand this better than many, and we now have examples of people like Cardinal Dolan making some progress in following Christ’s example.
During Easter weekend, the cardinal spoke on TV talk shows, where he admitted that “we’ve got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.” He also stated he would say to members of the community, “…God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which seeks to build bridges between the Church and LGBT communities, commented, “This is the first time that the cardinal has made such a positive statement about God’s love for lesbian and gay people. Such a statement is a refreshing change from the usual harsh rhetoric that the church hierarchy uses when discussing LGBT issues. It is a significant sign of welcome and outreach. Cardinal Dolan’s statement is nothing short of an Easter miracle.”
Maybe the bigger Easter miracle came during Easter Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when Cardinal Dolan was quoted as hinting that even more dramatic changes were coming. He said, “The Church, with a capital ‘C’, is undergoing renewal, repair, resurrection. I kind of think we’re seeing it today in a particularly fresh and new way with our beloved Holy Father.”
Perhaps the biggest change that our Pope Francis brings is that he seems to be loosening the bondage of fear that has held our leadership silent – and stifled the Gospel of inclusion. Maybe by washing young women’s feet, by speaking of the needs of people who live in poverty and by leaving behind a lot of the traditional pomp of his office, Pope Francis is freeing bishops from their fear of being censured by a harsh Vatican. As a Catholic sister I know that it is not pleasant to face such censure. But I also know that Jesus was not stopped by his fear of what authority would do.
So my prayer is that Pope Francis will continue to model an inclusive church that welcomes all in the name of Jesus. My prayer includes Cardinal Dolan and all of the other leaders of our church. I urge them to follow Jesus’s words to the disciples after his resurrection: Fear not!
This is the liberating power of welcoming everyone into the community. This is the life-giving realm of living the Gospel now.
Sister Simone Campbell is the Executive Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.