“Who am I to judge?”
With that answer to a question about gay Vatican employees, Pope Francis began a conversation, intense at times, about the status of LGBTQ people in the Church and society.
The pope was asked about a purported “gay lobby” among priests at the Vatican who protect each other. He condemned any such lobby, and said it was important to “distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby.”
This incident, in many ways, has come to define his papacy, not only because of the fraught topic addressed, but because it revealed something the pope is challenging the Church to do — dialogue.
In the pope’s view, no topics are off-limits for discussion. This has made some people nervous, but the pope knows that the world today craves authenticity, and to be authentic, you cannot be silent.
Pope Francis has opened conversations in the Church about many hot-button issues: Communion for the divorced and remarried, women deacons, climate change, and economic inequality.
The Holy Father has not changed Church doctrine in any of these areas. But he does want people to engage with each other, and he wants Church leaders to really listen to what lay people are saying.
People are not always going to agree, but the pope is saying that just having the conversation in a peaceful manner is a way of learning why others hold certain views. It’s also a way of accompanying each other.
In the U.S., many dioceses and parishes have held listening sessions in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests and riots.
Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, said, “We must create opportunities to hear the painful stories of those whose lives have been affected by racism.”
He said the goal is “to allow people to listen to each other, to exchange ideas, to become educated and change hearts.”
These listening sessions are in the spirit of Pope Francis and his emphasis on dialogue. Other listening sessions have taken place, including in the Diocese of Brooklyn, as part of the worldwide Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark has said he believes the first 10 years of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been preparation for “what’s happening right now, and that’s the synodal conversation.”
Cardinal Tobin said, “Synodality is a way of being church. It’s an ancient way of being church that is being recovered and lived in the circumstances in which we face ourselves today. And so, to my mind, that’s sort of the capstone of what Pope Francis has been working for.”
Likewise, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said, “I just wonder if, from the very beginning, he had in his mind that this would be the trajectory of his pontificate, and the Synod on Synodality, I think, is, in some way, the opportunity for him to pull everything together.
“There are people who want him to go faster, but he wants things to be held together and the church to be held together,” he added.
“He’s free in the sense of wanting to listen to different voices in the life of the Church,” Cardinal Cupich said.
These conversations that are at the continental stage of the process may very well prove to be the defining aspect of Pope Francis’ papacy. The pope is asking all of the people in the Church to engage in constructive dialogue.
At a time of deep divisions in our country and in our Church, we must heed the pope’s call.