By any measure, Pope Francis’ week-long visit to Brazil, capped by a Mass on Copacabana Beach attended by more than 3 million people, was a rousing success. The pope, in his first trip abroad since being elected in March, said and did all the right things — necessary to re-energize the Roman Catholic Church in the part of the world where it is being challenged by Evangelical churches.
Francis visited the poor, commented on government policies that are falling short of helping society’s most vulnerable, and wowed young Catholics attending World Youth Day.
His performance brought to mind another pontiff with star power, the late John Paul II, who became one of the most popular figures worldwide.
Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil revealed an individual with a deep understanding of the challenges confronting the global church. The insight comes from his being Argentinian and having served as a cardinal in his homeland.
But the pope’s willingness to address issues that have caused dissension among the 2 billion Catholics didn’t end when his plane took off from Rio De Janeiro.
In an impromptu question-and-answer session with journalists traveling with him, Francis made headlines when he offered this conciliatory comment about “gay” people in the church.
“If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” he said. “They should not be marginalized.”
Francis was responding to a question about a reported “gay lobby” of Vatican officials.
According to Los Angeles Times, the pope said he does not approve of any kind of lobby, but that it was important to distinguish that from priests or other Catholics who might be gay.
His remarks were widely interpreted as the leader of the world’s Catholics clearing the way for gay priests, so long as they remain celibate.
This view of homosexuality is a major departure from the one expressed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in 2005 that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should be barred from ordination, according to the Times.
But while news coverage has focused on the “ … who am I to judge,” comment, the pope’s view that gays should not be “marginalized” is just as significant.
Why? Because the church has historically marginalized groups that have not adhere strictly to its teachings.
Indeed, even while holding out an olive branch to gays, Pope Francis was unyielding on the issue of women priests.
“The door is closed” on the issue, he told reporters. But he did concede that women should have greater roles in administration within the Vatican and other church areas. He also called for a “theology of women” that has been missing.
“Let us remember that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the church are more important than bishops and priests.”
Shortage of priests
At a time when the church is suffering from a major shortage of priests, especially in the west, women are playing an increasingly prominent role in parishes.
And as their participation takes on greater significance, many women are questioning the church’s stand on the priesthood.
Pope Francis has shown a willingness to think outside the box that is the Vatican. Perhaps over time he will arrive at a different conclusion, just as he has on the issue of homosexuality.