From the moment this past July when Pope Francis uttered those words, "Who am I to judge?" in response to a question about homosexuality, he has grabbed the attention of the world in an even more intense way that he had before. How could this be that a Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church - a Church which, at least in the United States, has practically defined itself in its opposition to things like gay marriage and what U.S. Bishops would typically call the "gay agenda" - how could it be that the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics suddenly uttered these words.
You see, the perception by many on the outsides certainly over the last few decades has been that the Catholic Church has considered it Job Number One to do precisely that - to judge. Now, I'm not saying that is always a fair description, but I think it has been the common perception, especially from people on the outside. The proclamation of Pope Francis in July was quite frankly, earth shattering - or at least worthy of a really good shake. The ground has shifted.
Many people are quick to note that in the remarkably brief time that Pope Francis has been leader of our Church, he has not changed any theology. That this has thus far been a papacy of style over substance. But, I would respond with a few points in that regard. The first is simply this - sometimes style is substance or as Marshall McLuhan more famously coined many years ago, "The medium is the message." Style matters. How we say things is as important and often more important than what we say. You know, you may have noticed that Jesus, too, didn't change any theology. In the extraordinary time that He walked among us, in fact, He told us that He didn't come to abolish anything, but to fulfill it. And this He did. And, yet, without abolishing or changing any theology, He changed everything.
Why, because, theology doesn't solve anything. Theology defines. Theology describes. Theology helps us to understand and come to terms with what is revealed, but no one ever went screaming from the roof tops to share with the world the incredible knowledge of the Trinitarian nature of the Christological construct! They go shouting, "I met Jesus! And, He loves me!" Relationships are what change us. Theology merely helps us to describe those relationships.
Just as Jesus helped to redefine the way people saw each other in His own day - not as master and slave, not as male and female, not as over and under, not as greater and lesser, but instead, fundamentally as brother and sister each to the other; as responsible for one another - no matter the condition of their life, so too, this is exactly what Pope Francis is doing for us. The greatest allegation they levied against Jesus was that, "He dines with sinners and tax collectors." This was meant to really hurt where it counts. It was meant to be the greatest of crimes. Instead, Jesus embraced it as a mission statement and turned it into an example for us all; a command laid out so we'd know what to do. And, so has Pope Francis.
For too long we have been perceived as the Church of No. I'm regularly asked why is the Church against gay people or divorced people or those who have had abortions or sex outside of marriage or use contraception. The list goes on. And, the problem with all of these conversations with or about gay people, divorced and remarried people, people who have had abortions, people who think differently than us - any kind of people you want to put in there - is that our emphasis has been in the wrong place, we have emphasized the modifier in each instance - gay, divorced, abortion, contraception - and forgotten the word that was really important there - PERSON.
In each instance, we are dealing with people; real people with real concerns. You know, I have never met a gay person who is what conservative radio makes out - part of a gay agenda or conspiracy trying to recruit others into their gay lifestyle. Who I have met over and over are people - like anyone else - trying to make sense of their lives; trying to find a way to have love in their lives and trying to find a way to have God in their lives. I have never met anyone who thinks that abortion is the greatest thing ever created, but I have met too many people who have found themselves in difficult, or desperate, situations in their lives who simply didn't feel as though they had another option. I've never met anyone who thinks their divorce was great and would live their flawed marriage all over again, but I've counseled many people who simply don't know where it all went wrong and are trying to start over and do better this time around.
In every case, I didn't meat an issue, I met a person. And when we stop wasting our time judging, it gives us the chance to do other things like helping and listening and caring and finding solutions and being there to be part of a new day that brings greater connection and relationship into peoples' lives.
This is the heart of what Pope Francis is teaching us, I think, that the core of being a follower of Christ isn't contained in a Catechism, it is contained in the heart; it isn't expressed in dogmas and creeds, it is expressed in what we say and in what we do and how we treat one another - and so we need to treat one another with tenderness and care and love - like family. And that starts when we see each other as brothers and sisters united and not divided.
So, if it turns out that it isn't our job to judge, what are we to do? Well, here are some of the other options - we can love, we can accept, we can be brother and sister, we can encourage, we can walk together, we can laugh together and learn together. We can be kind with one another and forgiving of one another; we can be merciful and gracious.
You know what, actually, I think St. Paul had a better idea for us, "Brothers and sisters, put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful."