As a child raised in a relatively devout Catholic family, as a student who attended parochial schools for most of her education, as a woman who married out of her faith and has not returned, reading Pope Francis’s newest writings has given me a small measure of hope. It’s an optimism that comes with taking a step forward, however small.
In the just released Amoris Laetitia, or "The Joy of Love: On Love in the Family," the pope does what he seems to do best: Open his arms. He tries to bridge the gulf between reality and the ideal, acknowledging the deep and lasting grays that color our lives. In the process he is making the Catholic Church a little less dogmatic, a little less inflexible.
All of us might do well to emulate.
"The Joy of Love" calls on Catholics to look to their own consciences more than Vatican rules for solutions to the thorny problems that arise in the modern mutations of kinship. Francis focuses on concrete realities, on the inexhaustible mystery of family, on the ridiculous notion that we can sustain ourselves simply by depending on stale doctrine that has refused to keep up with the times. How uplifting that an unmarried man of the cloth finally, finally, attempts to understand that household life no longer resembles the ancient TV sitcom Father Knows Best — if it ever did at all.
In the nine-chapter document, the pope recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all, that each country or region must find solutions that are sensitive to its own culture and tradition. He pulls the Church from the abstract and into the practical, pointing out, in a way that is sure to alarm some, that adhering to artificial tenets conflicts with the basis of Jesus Christ’s teachings.
"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," he said. "Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties."
I love those words, the compassion that imbues them, the mercies they suggest. As I’ve aged and stumbled (and who doesn’t?), attempted to find answers to situations that defy explanation, I find myself growing less judgmental and more understanding. Experience makes allowance for frailty and faults. As it should. In this age of hate-mongering and bombastic presidential candidates, kindness and compassion are in much demand.
Not everyone will be happy with the pope, of course. Some will say Francis didn’t go far enough, others that he strayed too much. He welcomes the divorced, for example, but doesn’t open the door fully to gay marriage, contraception or abortion.
You don’t have to be a Catholic, or a Christian, or even religious, to realize that the pope’s call for the church to pivot is an invitation to the conversation of inclusion. Everyone is burdened by a private grief, by a personal failure, and he seems to know this. Seems to know, too, that life rarely conforms to assigned boxes and designated boundaries. It is messy and chaotic, a challenge that can be unbearable without guidance or empathy.
But I do believe that most of us struggle to do the best we can with what we have. Pope Francis, in his own way, seems to say just that.