who am I to judge them?

On the plane home from Brazil, Pope Francis surprised journalists with an 81 minute free-for-all question and answer period. John L. Allen Jr, as always, did a bang up job of reporting on the papal trip for the National Catholic Reporter including an article on the mid-air discussions. While Francis covered many topics, the one that made head-lines around the world was the following,

When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … they’re our brothers.”

The comment elicited a mixed response. Many rejoiced in what appeared to be a major change in tone, leaning towards more compassion and less legalism. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, meanwhile, was quick to insist that the Pope was not changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Jamie Manson wrote a challenging piece for NCR questioning whether it is too soon to rejoice since real change is yet to come with regards to same sex marriage and the ordination of women. (During the interviews Francis reaffirmed the definitive pronouncement made by John Paul II for a male-only priesthood.)

I think the key words here, and the words that resonated with so many, are who am I to judge them?

Pope Francis embraces the liberal emphasis on social justice. His life-style reflects gospel simplicity. His words and actions are those of a compassionate pastor. But, we cannot be naïve. He is not liberal in doctrine, and we cannot expect him to be. Remember who appointed the current roster of red hats at the Vatican.

“Who am I to judge them” doesn’t mean that we put all judging aside. Sometimes we hide behind a veil of tolerance to avoid making a tough judgment call. Tolerance, misused, can easily become apathy.

A well-known mantra for discerning right and just action is SEE, JUDGE, ACT. Judging requires careful discernment that goes deeper than either black and white legalisms or simple gut reactions. Truth requires a moral foundation but how we view and interpret that moral foundation will greatly affect our actions.

Pope Francis may not be over-turning any doctrines or disciplines in the Church but he is showing us how to be open to the gray areas where a large portion of truth resides. Beyond the rules and pronouncements are flesh and blood humans and our lives are seldom text-book. Jesus had few kind words for the Pharisees that spent their days wagging their fingers at rule breakers. He knew the messiness of life and showed us how the best judgments come from the heart; the source of compassion and mercy.
Sure, I wish that Pope Francis could wake up tomorrow and tear down the doctrinal walls of sexual morality that have kept too many good women and men on the margins of both church and society. In the meantime, perhaps the simple words who am I to judge will challenge those who are more inclined to make black and white judgment calls against their sisters and brothers.

I haven’t given up hope that one day the powers that be will catch up with the wisdom in the pews; a wisdom that increasingly sees no issue with welcoming LGBT persons into our communities and giving the community’s blessing on monogamous, committed relationships.

bishops get down in rio!

Lots of wonderful news has come from the recent World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Pope Francis continues to make head-lines around the world with his heart-focused pastoral style. More on that soon. Meanwhile, enjoy this video of a stage-full of bishops being led in a spirited song and dance by the young people. Now, THIS is a glorious image of leaders letting loose and experiencing the fire and passion of those they serve! 🙂

pope francis teaches servant leadership by example

Francis 4

“just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” Matthew 20:28

Pope Francis has spoken out against careerism in the church. He is a living example to priests and bishops about the call to serve, not to be served. The world’s media is enthusiastically sharing images of Francis carrying his own case into the plane, or opening his own car door. And, the door is attached to a simple Ford Focus. These aren’t big gestures, but they are having a big impact.

While in Rio de Janeiro for the World Youth Day, the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen produced two interesting interviews; one with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and the other with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Both bishops are known as head-line making (and head-line seeking) culture warriors in the American church. Some view them as classic examples of clerical careerists.

When asked why there were only 40 pilgrims from his diocese attending WYD, Archbishop Chaput responded that, “There was fear that it would pose a risk to people’s health and well-being by coming to Rio de Janeiro.” He admitted that “a number of dioceses in Pennsylvania actively discouraged their young people from coming and didn’t sponsor diocesan pilgrimages on purpose.”

Contrast his fearful attitude to that of the pope who visited one of the poorest slums, or favelas, of Rio called Varginha. According to John Allen,

In his native Argentina, Francis is already known as the “pope of the villas,” the Argentine equivalent of the Brazilian favelas. Both substantively and symbolically, Francis on Thursday made himself the apostle of slum-dwellers everywhere.

Francis is a bishop who never tires of telling his priests that they must be where the people are…to take on the “smell of the sheep”.

Chaput also made a puzzling comment about the right wing of the church that, “generally have not been really happy about his election, from what I’ve been able to read and to understand. He’ll have to care for them, too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run.” Really??? Astute commentators on the discussion boards voiced the obvious. Previous popes didn’t seem too concerned about appeasing the left wing of the church. The desire for a smaller and purer church was pushing away more Catholics than it was welcoming.

The Archbishop also believes that the most enthusiastic support for the new pope comes not from committed Catholics who are “ordinarily impressed with the pope”, but from non-Catholics and those who have been alienated from the church. He seems to believe that it is a shallow admiration rooted in a hope that Francis will be less doctrinal than John Paul II or Benedict XVI. What Chaput seems to miss is that the new pope is modeling the brilliant simplicity of the new evangelization; reaching out to all with the gospel challenge of faith, love and justice.

An enormous amount of time and energy goes into writing, translating and publishing papal encyclicals, exhortations and letters. I doubt that any of these theologically dense – and too often painfully lengthy – documents are moving as many hearts as Francis’s daily pontifical sound-bites and images. In our fast-paced, attention deficient world, his simple lessons are not only being listened to. They are being absorbed.

In the Cardinal Dolan interview, John Allen asked if Pope Francis was having a personal impact on him. Here is Dolan’s reponse,

I find myself examining my own conscience … on style, on simplicity, on lots of things.

For instance, I saw the pope open his own car door, close his own door, and carry his own carry-on bag. That says something to me. I used to do those things for myself, and it’s not that I think I’m above it now, but it’s just that as archbishop of New York people are doing it for me all the time. That’s a very down-to-earth example, but I’m beginning to say that I need to watch this guy closely because he’s a good example for me.

I also find myself thinking about living arrangements, because that’s a pretty nice house I’m living in. In some ways it’s not clear what I could do about it, because it’s the historic, traditional residence of the archbishops of New York, and it’s not like we can sell it. [Note: The residence is attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.]

In general, I find myself thinking about some of the perks, the cushiness, we associate with being a bishop. He’s pushing me to ask whether they’re necessary, and if they might actually be counterproductive.

No, we don’t all associate cushiness with the episcopacy. But, at least the Cardinal is being honest. And, he seems to get it. There is a new CEO in town, and the executives have to seriously consider re-working their play-books.

Pope Francis is slowly nudging the church onto a new path where the last become first; where the humble will be exalted, and the exalted humbled. If this is the case, there are many priests and bishops who will be quietly selling their black luxury vehicles and perhaps seeking newer, simpler digs.