It was startling to hear Pope Francis declare, “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” He is, after all, the supreme pontiff of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, arbiter of moral issues and symbol of ecclesiastical rectitude.
If he is not prepared to judge, why should anyone?
That is precisely the pope’s point. His words did not signal a doctrinal change in the church position that homosexual acts are a sin. Nor did he retreat from the church’s position against the ordination of women.
But he sent a clear and important message about “gay” people - the word he used in response to a question about gays in the priesthood - that marks an encouraging change in attitude, perhaps a new approach for the church in dealing with those with a same-sex orientation.
They should not be marginalized by the church, he said - nor, by implication, society at large. Who are we to judge?
This change in tone should not be lost on anyone, nor should the larger message of inclusiveness. That message was brought home by the pope’s remarkable visit to Brazil, home of the world’s largest Catholic population.
Get out of the sanctuary and talk to the people, the pope admonished members of the clergy. He set the example by visiting a crowded favela, talking to inmates as well as students and young people in small groups.
He waded unafraid in his popemobile into tumultuous crowds eager to see him up close and preached to millions on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
This pope wants to reinvigorate the institution and bring it closer to the grassroots, away from pomp and incense and closer to the spirt of humility symbolized by St. Francis of Assisi, whose name he adopted for his papal identity.
His sermons were in the same vein. “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world,” Pope Francis told a rain-soaked crowd in the Varginha favela, where he was received enthusiastically. “Those in possession of greater resources,” he declared, must “never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity.”
The words of the first Latin American pope on his visit to the continent of his birth are sure to find resonance in a part of the world where tensions have often reached the breaking point between a “popular” church that seeks to speak for the poor and an institutional church with a more traditional outlook.
His sermon was sure to be well received in Brazil, where poverty remains a huge problem. But the pope also underlined the greater importance of spiritual life: “It is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry - this is an act of justice. But there is also a deeper hunger, the hunger for a happiness that only God can satisfy.”
The pope’s visit to Brazil and his comments on homosexuality highlight the way in which the Argentine pope is writing a new chapter in church history. From the day he was elected, he began to change the rules in a way that signaled a refreshing new direction.
He lives in a Vatican residence with visiting clergy instead of the plush papal apartments. He eats there with everyone else. He carries his own luggage, shuns some of the pontiff’s elaborate regalia and, on occasion, speaks one-on-one with tourists visiting the Vatican - even the mayor of Miami-Dade County.
Traditionalists may be shaken by this new approach, but the pope evidently believes it’s time to shake up the church and bring it into the 21st Century, at least somewhat. And he may be right. Who are we to judge?