THE BLOG
09/30/2015 03:04 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

What Pope Francis Taught Me About Being a Catholic Lesbian

ANDREAS SOLARO via Getty Images

I wrote this as the majestic papal Mass ended in Philadelphia -- the final public event of Pope Francis's three-city tour of the U.S.: Washington, D.C., New York City, Philadelphia. The rain that had threatened all day with fat, dark clouds, held off until the Mass had ended.

It was a beautiful event by turns solemn and joyous. The city estimated the crowd at just under a million. Hundreds of thousands of women and men of all races, ages, abilities and identities all standing together, all in a hushed, shared communion with each other, a special kind of intimacy that they might never experience again under any other circumstance. Deeply respectful of each other, of each others' difference, of the reason they were all there.

It was extraordinary. It filled me with a sense of grace and hope.

Long after Pope Francis returns to the Vatican, to his small ascetic apartment and the daily duties of his papacy, those of us who felt that sense of communion will remain touched by it and held in the memory of the specialness.

Including me, a Catholic lesbian.

I have been a lesbian activist since I was a teenager when I was expelled from my all-girls school for being a lesbian. Unlike some, I see no conflict between my sexual identity and my identity of faith. I attend Mass every Sunday. As I have watched Pope Francis since his arrival in America and especially in my own city, Philadelphia, the confluence of my lesbianism and my Catholicism has only been strengthened.

If I have learned anything from watching Pope Francis up close and personal in Philadelphia over his two days here, it is that my Catholic faith and my lesbian identity are inextricable from each other. I have been reminded that I am uniquely blessed to be a Catholic lesbian and that my lesbianism and my faith are gifts.

From. God.

Most of my close friends are atheists or agnostics. Some were raised Catholic, others Jewish, still others in atheist households. My closest family members are all Jewish. My wife is agnostic, having been raised in a family half Jewish and half Catholic, but in a household without any religion itself, even though both sides of her extended family were devout. We sometimes joke that she is illiterate in two faiths.

Yet this past weekend, as we immersed ourselves in Pope Francis's visit to Philadelphia (every aspect of his visit was telecast non-stop on every local TV station from the pope's arrival until he left the city), she and I were united in our love for each other and our mutual appreciation for this amazing experience of which we were both part. As I witnessed her emotional response to the love and fellowship being spread throughout the city we both grew up in and have been partnered in for 16 years, I saw just how inclusive Pope Francis's message has been here, for all of us-believers and non-believers alike.

I asked her what it was about Pope Francis that touched her so deeply. She has never gone up to the altar at communion with me to be blessed and her attending Mass with me has never brought her closer to being a believer. She attends to support me, but not to join my faith.

What touched her, she said, was Pope Francis's unscripted response to people. Repeatedly over his weekend here he had his driver stop the popemobile so he could kiss a baby, bless a child, lay hands on sick and disabled people, take selfies with students lined up in the hope of seeing him. There was nothing false about it. It felt honest and genuine. He laughed and joked with people, giving thumbs up, dancing a bit. Yet with politicians or the rich and famous of all three cities, he was reserved and even a bit stiff. It was with the rest of us that he was relaxed and himself-especially with those who have been kept at arm's length from society and the Church itself.

Nowhere was this unscripted care for those most marginalized by society more in evidence than when Pope Francis went to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. There he met with about 75 inmates, male and female, and their families. He blessed them, hugged them, gave them gifts of rosaries.

In his speech to the group, Pope Francis talked about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. (In his first unscripted action as pope, Francis had, on Holy Thursday 2013, gone to a detention center in Rome where he washed the feet of inmates-male and female, Catholic and Muslim. Popes have reserved the washing of the feet for priests and bishops, the Church's hierarchy. Pope Francis went to the people.)

In Philadelphia he went to the people, again. These men and women struggling, as he noted, with what had put them in prison. He spoke of the washing of the feet and then said, "Life means 'getting our feet dirty' from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed."

Pope Francis also said, "Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion."

Still, many LGBT people feel excluded by the Church. And many LGBT Catholics were disappointed that Pope Francis did not speak directly to us as he did to the inmates at Curran-Fromhold, except for his reference to the family unit "in all its richness and diversity" during a speech Saturday night where he went off-script, again-much as he had at the prison.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, had pointedly included LGBT people and our families in his introduction to Pope Francis before he spoke at Independence Hall, even referencing Pope Francis's own words when he said of gay people, "If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized."

But when the pope spoke, he stayed on the topic of immigration and immigrant families in our sanctuary city.

When the pope was still in Washington, a lesbian couple from Philadelphia, Margie Winters and her wife, Andrea Vettori, we among a select group invited to the White House for the reception for Pope Francis. Winters had been fired at the end of June from her position as director of religious education at Mercy Waldron Academy, a Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia. Winters was fired after two parents went to the Archdiocese to complain when they discovered she was married to Vettori.

The couple had been married in 2007 in Massachusetts. Winters had informed the school of this when she was hired in 2007; she was told it would not be a problem as long as she did not discuss her lesbian marriage with her students. After the firing, many parents and students rallied in support of her, but she was not re-instated. Vettori even wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking for intercession.

During Pope Francis's visit to Philadelphia, Winters said, "The exclusion of lesbian and gay Catholics impacts the integrity of the Church as a whole."

Yet when Pope Francis said Mass at Madison Square Garden, openly gay comedian and actor Mo Rocca gave the first reading, in Spanish. That was surely a statement of inclusion.

Where do LGBT people stand with the Church? On the outside looking in? On the inside, but silent, as Winters was asked to be at her job? Or, as with Rocca, inside and also open? Where does Pope Francis stand with us? This is a pope who makes change with actions more than words, with unscripted remarks more than prepared speeches. He didn't speak out about prison reform, but he certainly embraced prison inmates and made it clear they are no different from the rest of us.

In Pope Francis's unscripted remarks about gay people in July 2013, he was succinct: "Who am I to judge?"

It's easy for us as LGBT people of faith to exclude ourselves from the Church which has been less than welcoming throughout our lifetimes. But what I took from Pope Francis' visit is that we all have our place, we are all welcome, whether we are spoken to directly or obliquely. If one of the many babies Pope Francis kissed or blessed during his visit was the daughter or son of a lesbian or gay couple, would he have refused that blessing? We know he would not.

But we all want that blessing. We all want to be included, to be embraced, to be held within the arms of the Church. Lesbians like Winters, Vettori and myself, as well as other LGBT Catholics want to hear our Church speak to us and about us and Pope Francis seems to be the Church leader most likely to offer us that communion.

As eager as I might be to hear Pope Francis reach out to LGBT Catholics, I am not waiting for that shift in Church doctrine or for a papal evolution. Much as I like Pope Francis, my faith is not dependent on this pope or any other. My lesbianism is no sin, no transgression, no affront to the either the Church or, more importantly, the God I believe in.

What I learned from Pope Francis as he came and blessed our city was that he is, like the rest of us, human and as such, flawed. He has the humility to own this, to ask repeatedly of everyone, that they pray for him. What I learned from Pope Francis is that he, like the rest of us, is constantly re-evaluating what he knows of the world. What I learned from Pope Francis is that he understands there are many contradictions in this life, that faith itself is a contradiction.

And so I come away from Pope Francis's visit not embittered by his failure to speak to me, a lesbian Catholic, but assured by every action and speech of his that I witnessed, that he is more human than God, more conflicted than sure, more searching than settled.

That reaffirmed for me what I have always known to be true: That I am no less a member of my Church than anyone else, that being a lesbian requires no imprimatur from the Church, because I am, according to the Church's own theology, made in God's image.

I would like to have Pope Francis speak to LGBT people for all the women and men who are not as sure as I am. But for now, I feel blessed. I experienced that moment of communion, that moment of connection.

We can set ourselves outside our own Church, our own faith, waiting, growing bitter and angry and hurt, or we can remind ourselves that the God we worship made us -- made us to be loving, caring LGBT people. Pope Francis renewed my faith not just in God, but in myself as a that spiritual vessel the nuns taught us we were. I am a Catholic and I am a lesbian. Amen.