THE BLOG
09/29/2015 05:48 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

What Pope Francis Says to Us "Lost Sheep"

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Some may consider us lost, but we are not difficult to find. We were raised in devout Roman Catholic homes with crucifixes above our front doors. Attending Catholic school from preschool through college, we marked the passage of time with the lighting of candles in Advent or the silence of Good Friday services; we celebrated major milestones -- births, deaths, weddings -- within the walls of the parish, more central to our identity than our neighborhood or hometown.

We still do these things, sometimes, but not without internal conflict.

At some point -- quietly, perhaps gradually, or maybe all at once -- we grew uneasy in the pews. Rituals that once brought us great comfort only served to remind us that our consciences conflicted with what we'd been taught to accept as unequivocal truth.

"I was raised Catholic," we say, wondering when the verb had changed from "am" to "was raised," knowing that it had changed all the same.

Pope Francis visited the United States this past weekend, in a whirlwind tour of three major cities and in the presence of thousands of religious and not-so-religious people. In Philadelphia, where I live, he spoke on Independence Mall, reminding immigrants to not be "discouraged" in the face of xenophobia. The next day, visited a prison, calling international attention on the plight of the incarcerated.

It was Capitol Hill on Thursday, however, that Pope Francis spoke to me.

"If there are any among you who do not believe or cannot pray," he said, "I ask you to send good wishes my way."

Pope Francis could have spent his long weekend offering Christian platitudes, or -- perhaps as we have come to expect from a Roman Catholic leader -- condemning abortion, or touting the importance of traditional marriage. Instead, he focused his efforts and his speeches on the socially marginalized: the immigrant, the refugee, the incarcerated man or woman. On Independence Mall, he celebrated the service of people of all religions who have striven to improve their communities. The change in attitude is palpable.

Yet the rulebook has not changed; it can't, not without the social progression that hundreds of years can bring. Pope Francis has not attempted to change much at all with regard to Catholic teaching, and it's misguided to think that he would even try. In my lifetime, I will not attend a Mass celebrated by an ordained woman, nor will I witness my gay and lesbian friends' weddings in the walls of any Catholic church. We lost sheep have accepted these truths long ago, and they are perhaps what caused us to struggle so much in the first place.

What Pope Francis is doing, however, is dusting off the basic inclusive principles of the Church and shining light on those. Rather than an explanation of the rules we're already familiar with (the "can'ts" and "shouldn'ts" of the Church), he has specifically focused his efforts in reminding Catholics to live in service of others and to love people as they are, especially the socially marginalized. The rest, it seems, is just not as significant to him.

As it happens, "the rest" is usually what causes the profound struggle of the lost sheep. It was not the preaching or the practice of the golden rule that caused us to ideologically wander elsewhere; it was all the other rules that accompanied it.

Pope Francis speaks not just to Catholics firm in their religious convictions, but also those of us who are "lost," still inextricably connected to the Church that raised us, but are categorically unable or unwilling to reconcile our consciences with some of its social teachings.

Instead of sealing its doors closed to keep its followers in, Pope Francis' Church leaves the door open for those of us who may wander back, or at least look in every now and then, to see the love and inclusion that we knew was always there.