THE BLOG

A Thank You Note to Pope Francis

11/25/2013 05:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014
Franco Origlia via Getty Images

Your Holiness --

As we approach American Thanksgiving, it is time to express gratitude for a very important development in the life of the Catholic Church, which I very much love. And that is the grace of your pontificate.

It began in those exciting early days. Recall the foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday? What did the foot-washing represent? Did it symbolize Jesus commissioning an all-male priesthood? Or did it stand for something else? Perhaps Jesus' awareness that those who lead must first of all serve. When you washed the feet of those youthful prisoners, boys and girls, Christians and non-Christians, you made it clear that Jesus' message of ultimate self-sacrifice in the service of others is that it must have universal appeal.

And you have been living up to that ideal in your own public ministry. Your wreath-laying at Lampedusa was heart-warming even while it was heart-wrenching. You reminded us that desperate immigrants, who have done nothing wrong aside from searching for a better life, are routinely blotted from our view. Their lives are led and lost on the invisible margins, and you made that visible to us. And the visit you paid to the Brazilian slum, where you showed and shared your love, that reminded us of what your namesake, St. Francis, would have done. And we know that St. Francis acted in imitation of Jesus.

You know and feel in your bones that the great crisis confronting the world today is the worship of Mammon. Money has become the new global deity, commanding universal tribute, universal obeisance. It is, you said, the "idol" before which the world bows down. But as we know from the Gospel, we cannot serve both God and Mammon. I pray that you draw the Church into effective action on behalf of the poor. This would be in keeping with the priority Jesus set in the Gospels.

I am grateful for that meeting you had with the Latin American nuns in early June. The good nuns you hosted harbored a great fear that they might be investigated by a hostile Church bureaucracy, the way their sisters in North America had been. You put their minds at ease, reminding them not to worry about making mistakes: "Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine [of the Faith] will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward." "It is necessary to shake things up," you told those sisters. And you have not shied away from doing that yourself, your Holiness.

Remember how you said "gay" on your return flight to Rome after World Youth Day in Brazil? "If a person is gay, and follows the Lord, and has good will, then who am I to judge?" This was a truly remarkable statement. Efforts have been made to minimize it. Commentators persistently try to misinterpret it as applying exclusively to priests and candidates for the priesthood. For sure, the question you were asked dealt explicitly with a priest you had appointed to high office, but your answer was not confined to that situation. It was general, meant to apply to clergy and laity alike.

At the same time, you have always -- conspicuously, consistently -- avoided the harsh condemnatory language of the Catechism where gays are concerned. Changing doctrine is hard, but changing tone, shifting emphasis, these are welcome first steps. The Church, after all, practiced de facto religious tolerance long before Vatican II recognized religious liberty as a human right.

I am grateful for your openness to culture. You do not see the world in dualistic terms. It is not "us against them." You appreciate that human beings are admixtures of flawed sinfulness and genuine greatness. You understand that culture, which is merely human experience writ large, comprises the same admixture. Even a great sinner is capable of good deeds. And even a great sinner can be forgiven. This does not mean that evil is overlooked or excused. Rather, it means that the wholeness of persons and societies are taken into account. And I think that this means the end of the "culture war."

The Church should not, of course, surrender on essential principles. But Church leaders should come to know that it is one thing to cooperate with the political process to achieve worthy ends and another thing altogether to take political stands, finding one party's platform praiseworthy while denouncing the other side as representing "intrinsic evil."

You set a good example of how a prelate must approach politics when you took your valiant stand on Syrian intervention. You realized that violence begets violence and your call for peace, which was not driven by partisan motives but by a desire to spare innocent lives, transcended narrow political boundaries. Your prayers were heartfelt and I think they achieved tangible results. Thank you.

I look forward to next year. I pray that you are not captured by your handlers, that you keep your spontaneity, and that the Gospel always remains foremost. You've certainly helped to renew my faith.