The gentle power of inclusion
The Supreme Pontiff hardly ever pontificated, and that is why he came across and was warmly received, his message paid heed to respectfully if not devoutly. He was giving the United States and the world sage advice, much of it coming from his pastoral experience, all of it firmly anchored in the integrity of his person and the humility with which he witnesses to what he holds is true. In stark contrast to self-righteous national leaders, dear Pope Francis has never held out his way as the “right way,” and much less did he condemn those who do not follow in his steps as back-sliders and moral retardates.
Both before the US Congress —and in the presence of some Supreme Court justices, the very same Court that effectively approved of abortion by holding it to be within the ambit of a woman’s right to privacy—and before the assembled leaders of the powers of the world at the UN General Assembly, he reiterated traditional Catholic teaching on life: from the moment of fertilization to natural death. There was no doctrinal departure in respect to marriage: the indissoluble union of one man and one woman, open to new life. But the overarching rubric was “inclusion”, “inclusiveness.” And this has been his resolute pastoral disposition: reaching out to those who have been consigned to the peripheries. Quite clearly, these are the regions of the impoverished and the dispossessed. It is the netherworld of the refugees who flee their war-torn lands only to be met with threatening fences of barbed wire and snarling patrol dogs. But it is also where we will find those whom our standards of decency and respectability, our collective hypocrisy, have left to a shadowy existence because of failed marriages, re-marriages, sexual orientation and non-traditional unions.
CNN told us that the Madison Square Garden Mass had for, the first reading, openly gay lector. Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Vatican liturgists must have a hint that this was going to be so. Knowing first hand how fastidious Vatican bureaucrats and liturgists are, nothing is left to chance. They could have made a big fuss about it; they did not. And even if it is improbable that Pope Francis knew of the lector’s personal preferences, it is clear that the Church and its hierarchy is slowly catching on. As in the case of John XXIII and John Paul II, now both saints, we can almost hear the lumbering footfalls of a Church trying so hard to keep pace with its shepherd.
It was not any different when Francis led an ecumenical prayer service at Ground Zero.
Representatives of other faiths and denominations awaited him, but he respectfully went to each, shaking hands and greeting them cordially before starting the service. If there is anything that will bring us closest to the vision of unity that seems to elude us continually —for how many decades now have we talked “ecumenism”—it will not be because of doctrinal unanimity but because of what St. Francis, the Pope’s namesake, prayed: Fatti me uno strumento della vostra pace... make me an instrument of your peace.
One does not have to give up on principle and truth (as one holds it and receives it) to be kind and understanding and welcoming, commodities of the heart of which our world is presently in very short supply. Is he conservative then or liberal? Perhaps a socialist or a communist? Under the canons of Francis’ logic, it is precisely categories that keep us from reaching and touching persons. Just as he would not allow barricades or security escorts to keep him away from teaching, hugging and kissing the people who came in unprecedented droves, he will not have us cling to our constructs and miss the persons of flesh and blood behind them. That is why Pope Francis makes a difference. That is why his brand of Christianity can still make a difference.