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Sex on a Plane
Pope Francis gets the world to listen.


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Kathryn Jean Lopez

‘People won’t remember what you said as much as how you made them feel,” my friend Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices in England, writes in his book How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. “Intellectuals and theologians, beware. Erudition is the opposite of communication, which uses simple words to explain complex ideas. It’s not just about the lucidity of your arguments. It’s about the effect that your words have on others.”

Can you think of a better illustration of this than the still-unfolding story of the papal transition in the Catholic Church? Pope Francis was described as a “hurricane” that hit Rio for World Youth Day last month — and left us all the better for it. Upwards of 3 million young people joined the new pontiff in prayer at Mass, on what was dubbed “Popacabana” beach. And then when he left, the media really started paying attention.

After warmly greeting each reporter on the Alitalia jet transporting him and the press from Rome to Brazil, Pope Francis announced that he doesn’t do many interviews, joking that journalists aren’t the saints he is most devoted to. But on the plane ride back to Rome, the 76-year-old pope, after meeting and exceeding the demands of his busy schedule in Rio, stood for 80 minutes in open exchange with the media on the plane. They, naturally, asked questions about the most controversial issues.

And so, the plane had barely landed when the story of World Youth Day morphed into headlines about sex. Homosexuality, in this case. With pastoral concern, in response to a specific question about a specific priest, Pope Francis voiced his dismay about the gotcha culture we live in, where people’s pasts are delved into relentlessly in the hope of finding scandal. Jesus forgives and forgets, he said, and we must seek to emulate him. The pope was very clear that he was talking about sins, not crimes. While making clear that sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful, he also heralded a great resounding truth of Christianity: The Church is a place for sinners who truly seek redemption.

“Who am I to judge?” he said. And with that question, coming as it did in a discussion of homosexuality, a door opened. Floodgates did, too, as people projected their agendas onto it. But fundamentally, that brilliant line, authentically delivered, hit like the kind of welcome thunderstorm that breaks an unbearable heat wave.

“Who am I to judge?” is consistent with Church teaching; it reflected Pope Benedict’s posture as well; but oh my goodness was it ever heard this time! It was spoken in an unmistakably loving way that reflects, because it is in prayerful union with, the gratuitous love of God the Father. What the world is so fascinated by in Pope Francis is that combination of love, self-sacrifice, humility, and truth-telling that marks authenticity. His style and temperament only help with the hearing.

There may be some selective listening, of course, but there is a new openness to the Church in the secular West, in no small part due to his leading with ardor in love.

Pope Francis also spoke on the plane about women. He said that Mary is more important than the Apostles in salvation history and that women are a vital part of the Church that is itself a mother. He used the phrase “theology of women,” and with that brought out a key to the treasure chest that holds the fortune that may just end tragic misunderstandings about the Church’s view of women. In fact, few people or institutions work for the dignity and protection of women like the Catholic Church.

That point about Mary is no small one. She is the ultimate model of Christian faithfulness, having willingly submitted to God’s will for her, and having watched the son she had given birth to be brutally beaten, humiliated, and crucified. The Church honors her and all women. And since he became pope, we have seen Francis make his way on multiple occasions to Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, not a quick sprint from the Vatican, to give thanks for that model and a reminder to the world that Catholics believe we have heavenly intercessors — we’re not alone in our prayers.

In his apostolic letter The Dignity and the Vocation of Women, the late John Paul II made this clear: “The Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility . . .” Women and men alike carry tremendous burdens and have deep wounds. And the Church believes that the “feminine genius” unleashed can be a transformative presence. There is here an outpouring of love and appreciation that is foreign to a feminism that views women’s biology as a cosmic injustice, requiring a chemical remedy to produce “equality.”

Or as Pope Benedict said in a message he handed to me last October, repeating Paul VI at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council: “The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”

And are we ever falling! There is liberation in this proposed worldview. People deserve to hear about this alternative lifestyle.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling as if a new healthy day may be dawning, where we might just welcome real religion again. Believers make good neighbors; they help democracy, and they help make sense out of society. This hurricane of a leader — a man who, living his gratitude to his Creator’s love for him, sees the divine spark in every child, woman, and man greeting him along Rio streets, everyone suffering who comes to him for a blessing — is getting the world’s attention. As New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan commented, the pope is echoing Jesus and saying: “Come and see. Stay with me for a while. Learn me. And then we’ll get to . . . those ‘hot-button’ issues.”

On a plane ride to Rome, Pope Francis cut through preconceived notions and made people feel a little more comfortable with Catholicism. There’s more to know. And he may just succeed in telling the story, making the pitch, about what it is that’s at the heart of the Church, making choices about a love that never ends.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



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