Is it wrong for me to grasp at the straws of meaning that can be garnered from Pope Francis’s speech to the bishops of the United States as they gathered under the roof of Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C. on September 23rd, 2015, during his United States tour for the World Meeting of Families? Is it wrong for me to hope against hope that Pope Francis will make some decree negating the centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian people in the Church? Is it wrong for me to hope against all reason that everything will change in the blink of one earth-shattering speech, and that I would suddenly be able to overcome all adversity within the Church in order to recognize my dream of inclusion?
But it hasn’t stopped me from hanging on every word that the Pontiff has executed during his whirlwind visitation. It has been astonishing to me the variance in style that the Pontiff has chosen in [pre-]writing his speeches for specific audiences. His speech for Congress catered to patriotism and values of state as elucidated by four distinctly American heroes: Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dorothy Day; and the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, and focused on liberty, peace, social justice, and dialogue.
However, his speech a very short time (less than an hour) later to the congregants of Saint Peter’s Church in Washington D.C.—a church known for its work in advocacy of the homeless—was more relational from a story-telling perspective: from the trials of Saint Joseph the husband of Mary and adoptive father of Jesus. Not only that but his storytelling was also visually stimulating for the congregants as he stood in front of the main altar decorated with a beautiful relief of DaVinci’s Last Supper. And his papal crucifix, hanging ever-present on his solar-plexus, vividly depicts the “good shepherd” tending his flock, with the missing lamb—now found—slung yoke-like around the shepherd Jesus’s shoulders. These are images—storytelling elements that reinforce themes for the masses of congregants; visualization is an important element of the catechism (just as it was when the catechism was illustrated on the cards of the tarot…).
But I really wanted to focus on the public speech that Francis gave to his legion of bishops on his first day in Washington at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral (the archdiocese of Washington D.C. overseen by Cardinal Wuerl). I should say that I am impressed with the consistency of Pope Francis’s message: it did not stray far from his message of his very first extensive interview in 2013 with Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. jointly published in the periodicals America and La Civiltà Cattolica.
In that interview, Pope Francis, six months into his papacy, stated his opinion that the Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, and in trying to explain his reasoning behind his preferred actions and “omissions” stated, “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the [C]hurch are not all equivalent. The [C]hurch’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” 1
A very carefully chosen semantic meaning in those words… “A disjointed multitude of doctrines” would seem to admit that there was a wide chasm of opinion—even among his higher hierarchy—that contributed to much confusion and hurt among the cascading deaconate, sub-deaconate, and lay followers of the Church. “Why are such calcifying, divisive subjects even being pandered around?” he seemed to ask, when he pontificated that, “…they have to be taught in a larger context. ‘The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.’” 2
In regards to the question of homosexuality, Pope Francis had this to say: “A person once asked me in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Father Spodaro. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
And this was a theme throughout his speeches in Washington D.C. this week. It was reiterated during his speech to the U.S. Congress when he contemplated on the Golden Rule: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek ourselves…The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” 3
So it was with intent that I listened with the ears of my heart, but also with my head's ears—those of a beaten and disillusioned skeptic and cynic, and not—at times—without a microscope…
I was, for instance, momentarily inspired with hopefulness when Pope Francis declared at the beginning of his speech:
“The heart of the Pope expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of the mission entrusted to the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of the One who on the cross embraced the whole of mankind. May no member of Christ’s Body and the American people feel excluded from the Pope’s embrace.”4
Wow. I could live on that promise alone for the rest of my life… if the Chaputs of the world weren’t there to defend their right to disclaim it. Which is why this pretext a little bit later in the speech was less encouraging:
“It is not my [Pope Francis’s] intention to offer a plan or devise a strategy [for you, the bishops of the United States]. I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I trust completely in the voice of the One who ‘teaches all things’ (referring to the Gospel of John 14:26).”
As someone who has felt the blow of being the castigated class at the hands of some very harsh doctrinal pronouncements by the very bishops to whom he was speaking, I suppose I was hoping for a more distinct instruction from His Eminence. And, while not reproving, there was something in the way of advice shortly thereafter:
“…[W]e are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
“Dialogue is our method, not a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love. (Matthew 20:1-16)
“The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogues with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions,… Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness ad love remains truly convincing.”
…All of which, again, harps back to that 2013 interview by Father Spodaro. Bravo.
And while this sounds grand to my interpretive ear, one must always understand that there are other ears listening and many of them have their own prerogatives, preferences, and agendas of interpretation with which they are just as satisfied to content themselves, consoling, satisfying, and confirming their own past (and likely intended) actions.
The Pontiff continues with a theme of “unity-above-all-else.” As he states:
“Our mission as bishops is first and foremost to solidify unity, a unity whose content is defined by the Word of God and the one Bread of Heaven… It is imperative…to watch over that unity, to safeguard it, to promote it and to bear witness to it as a sign and instrument which, beyond every barrier, unites nations, races, classes, and generations… drawing us into the fathomless depths of God’s heart in which no division dwells, be for all of you a privileged moment for strengthening communion, perfecting unity, reconciling differences, forgiving one another and healing every rift…” (emphasis mine)
This all seems like a commandment to “Work-it-out amongst yourselves!...There are more important things than focusing only on what happens in the bedroom!” It’s as if Francis is saying, “See? I don’t have to indelicately mention any such thing—as many of you feel necessary to do—because there is a greater thing, a greater focus, something that means a great deal to everyone… not a divisive thing, so why harp on it?”
And ironically, through this method, people—our neighbors as well as the bishops—will get to know us more personally, more socially, more intimately, hear our stories, and perhaps come to have more compassion about what had been considered a difference… They will have the opportunity to witness that there is no difference at all, that love is simply love. That truly would be "bridge building"...
There is no mention of homosexuality in Francis’s speech. The non-specificity can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Because, as I noted above, while I interpret its absence as an indicator of its irrelevancy toward “the first and foremost mission of solidifying unity,” others will apply their own interpretation to the omission. For instance, this paragraph in Francis’s speech is completely up-for-grabs:
“These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistant and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39). I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.” (emphasis mine)
Such a statement is completely open to interpretation, and I assure you, conservatives will quote it as a license to actively continue persecuting LGBT people based on the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.
However, the core of what we learned from “the Lord” (Jesus Christ… in the New Testament) did not include instructions regarding homosexuality, neither homosexual acts nor homosexual love. People do quote Jesus’s statement from Matthew where he claims not to have “come to abolish or change the law [of Moses] or the prophets.” (Matthew 5:17) But immediately thereafter he makes a series of distinctions which have been deemed the “Antitheses,” because essentially he is creating a new interpretation of the laws, or extending their meaning, or re-defining their meaning. I feel that it is convenient that theologians do not remember this important factor. They refuse to admit that Jesus was a radical, a rebel, that he was the new covenant… that he changed things. It astonishes me that we can admire Jesus for coming into the world to make the greatest change in man’s history, and that he said it was okay to contest unjust rules and laws, and yet most Christians are only interested in concretizing Jesus the person—they would be more comfortable relating to him as a statue than they would be to have to confront him in flesh and blood, with the messiness of having a real conversation instead of projecting what they want to hear coming from his stone lips.
After three major speeches by Francis, I’m not much further along in my own Catholic community self-esteem redemption… But I know that my local bishop listened to Francis’s words (because he posted favorite phrases on his facebook page), so perhaps the possibility of dialogue does exist, and that first ball rolling towards understanding and unity has a chance of getting under way.
I will pray as much…
 Goodstein, Laurie. “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.” New York Times, September 19, 2013.
 transcript of speech to United States Congress provided by Public Broadcasting Service website:
Epatko, Larisa. “Pope Francis in the U.S.: Full Text of Pope Francis’ remarks to Congress.” PBS Newshour (website). http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/full-text-of-pope=francis-remarks-to-congress. (last accessed 9/24/2015).
 all quotations from Pope Francis’s speech to U.S. bishops taken from transcript of speech provided by New York Times website:
“Pope Francis’ Speech to the Bishops of the United States of America.” New York Times (website). http:www.nytimes.com/2015/09/24/us/pope-francis-speech-to-the-bishops-of-the-united-states-of-america.html?_r=0 (last accessed 9-24-2015).