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Pope Francis’ Visit: Pastoral or Political?

October 6, AD2015

pope francis, pope, papacy, papal

As Pope Francis traveled to Cuba and then to the United States he stressed that his visits were pastoral, not political. He is the shepherd of the world’s Catholics. Yet in spite of such insistence, pundits of all stripes analyzed his every move as if they were reading tea leaves to find a hidden ideological message.

For example, he was asked why he did not formally meet with dissidents while in Cuba. The Pope said he gave no private audiences to anyone while in Cuba, but did greet many people at the Cathedral in Havana. No one was singled out for special treatment.

In the United States, Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, DC. The commentary buzzed about the Pope showing support for the Little Sisters in their judicial battle with the Obama administration over compliance with the HHS mandate for contraception coverage.

I have no doubt that Pope Francis does support the Little Sisters of the Poor in this matter, but I also do not believe that his visit to them was necessarily a political endorsement of their legal struggle. He has repeatedly decried our throw-away culture and pointed to abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide as evidence of our willingness to treat other human beings as disposable. The Little Sisters of the Poor are the antithesis of this throw-away culture as they devote their lives to caring for the needy elderly who are sick and dying. It makes more sense that Pope Francis visited them because he wanted to show his solidarity with their mission to treat the elderly with true compassion and dignity rather than because he wanted to make some sort of political statement.

Similarly, the headlines blared that Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Many people giddily thought that Pope Francis was formally taking sides on the issue of conscientious objection to gay marriage. The public chatter so mischaracterized the meeting that the Vatican issued a clarification:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.

The former student that Pope Francis did meet with was Mr. Yayo Grassi, a 67-year-old openly gay man. He brought his partner to the meeting. So of course the headlines then suggested that Pope Francis was endorsing same-sex relationships and repudiating Kim Davis. Again the Vatican had to clarify:

Mr. Yayo Grassi, a former Argentine student of Pope Francis, who had already met other times in the past with the Pope, asked to present his mother and several friends to the Pope during the Pope’s stay in Washington, DC. As noted in the past, the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue.

Pope Francis, while Archbishop of Buenos Aires, called same-sex marriage the “machination of the Father of Lies”. For months he has devoted his Wednesday audiences to the defense of the family and the affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman. There is no reason to believe that he condones the lifestyle of his former student. Yet he still reaches out in charity.

Perhaps one of the lessons we should glean from the recent papal visit is that as Catholic Christians we do not shun anyone. Pope Francis reaches out in love to all who suffer, whether that suffering is physical, emotional, or spiritual. We are brought to tears when he stops and blesses those who are physically deformed or disabled. Should we be surprised that he similarly extends his pastoral hand to those who are spiritually deformed?

As Pope Francis demonstrates, living and sharing the Gospel cannot be defined by political ideologies. We can object to behaviors that contradict natural law. We can disagree with our neighbor about politics and policies and how they align with Catholic social teaching. Yet we are still called to see the Face of Christ in every person we encounter. Sometimes that face may be the radiant Holy Face of Our Lord. More often it will be the wounded bloody face of the suffering Christ. Will we turn away, or will we embrace our suffering brother and do what we can to promote healing and reconciliation?

The Jubilee Year of Mercy will soon commence so perhaps it is a good idea to review both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We are urged to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and admonish sinners, but this is not a call to vanquish our political foes. Instead of framing every interaction as a political battle to be won, we should follow Pope Francis’ lead and take a more pastoral approach. Let every encounter with our neighbor be an opportunity to act as an ambassador of God’s mercy and love. Scoring political points is insignificant when compared to enabling the salvation of souls for eternity.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for Zenit.org. She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and three grandchildren (so far).

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