It is said that when the student is ready the teacher appears. Thus comes Pope Francis, teaching, by example, the virtue that is, to me, the foundation of all virtues—humility. Indeed, because of this, change is happening in the Catholic Church, happening not in dogma, but in its very heart.
And it has taken a Pope who believes precisely that change is not only necessary but also should begin with him—a Pope who remembers that, for all the consecrated precedents and representations of his office, he is, like everyone else, a God-created human being, that he sits on Peter’s throne to save souls, not to judge them.
Such is the context—a context simplified and leavened with a sense of humor—in which Francis has redefined his papacy.
For starters, he shed the trappings of pomp and power from his person and office, thus restoring the papacy, nay, the Church itself, to what Christ intends it—shepherd to His flock.
Only lately, the Vatican has announced, “Pope Francis is making good on his insistence that the Catholic Church welcome all faithful—not just those who obey the church teaching perfectly.” The italics are mine, intended to underscore the quality and extent of the embrace I feel, as I’m sure many others do, from Francis.
The Vatican statement was occasioned by a Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica during which Pope Francis himself was to marry 20 couples in “irregular partnerships”—in a word, cohabiting; in certain cases, blessed with children.
The Pope was forgiving what the Vatican statement itself pointed out as “technically, a sin, in the eyes of the church,”
Vergel and I are not among those 20 couples. But while we feel content enough to have had our own irregular partnership civilly regularized, we can’t help identifying with the 20, indeed, taking a share in Francis’s beneficence.
For me, it’s enough to know he is thinking of people like us, clearing the way for a more merciful and forgiving church, a church that “cares less about morals and rules then it does about conversion of souls”.
In an earlier expansion of his “papal embrace,” in January, Francis baptized the child of a couple married legally, though not in his church.
But the mass wedding marked a determined sense of renewal; it launched an official, two-year Vatican study into matters affecting family life, including “premarital sex, contraception and divorce,” deeds hitherto guaranteed to jettison one to hell.
Pope Francis once again is opening windows and doors of the church to rescue, rather than damn, souls.
My dad, in his lifetime of 91 years, had this dangerous theory that human weakness is the easiest for God to forgive, it being an integral part of man’s humanity, not sin per se. That’s why he liked to think God merely chuckling in loving good humor at human frailties while officious priests threaten hell.
Concerned for his soul, I decided to take his salvation into my hands. In his mid-’80s, when he began suffering little strokes, I arranged for his confession with a priest, a friend, at the Edsa shrine.
Given dad’s rather rationalized approach to sin and salvation, I thought I’d prepare the priest for dad’s confession, instead of the other way around.
But as soon as he realized what I was doing, the priest stopped me. “Bring him to me now, please,” he said, smiling, shaking his head, implying, I definitely sensed, that I was starting to overreach. “I need to hear it from him.”
After far less time than I expected, dad came out. “That was quick,” I said, “Did you tell him everything?”
“I had to cut it short, kiddo; he seemed to enjoy my sins almost as much as I did,” he replied, provoking loud laughter from his confessor, who was following behind.
Dad had always seemed confident of salvation. “Relax, kiddo,” he’d try to appease when the issue came up. “All those years at the Ateneo I must have completed enough nine first Friday and Saturday novena masses to get me a place in heaven.”
I thanked the priest and asked him, as a patient would a physician, “Does he need to come back?”
“No,” he patted my hand, “he doesn’t have to. Just have another priest in his parish drop by at home to bless him, occasionally.”
I announced the good news to him like a clean bill of health. He was the least bit surprised.
“Of course, kiddo, I couldn’t sin now, even if I wanted to.”
I guess it’s my turn to reexamine how I feel about my own salvation and test my own beliefs. The first step, I’m convinced, is to follow Francis: lighten up, de-complicate life, and become simple again; be a witness to God’s love, not only for myself but for the rest of humanity.
Imagine if great spiritual leaders, regardless of beliefs, adopted the same perspective. Religions would shade into one another, and there would be no one left out of God’s embrace.