Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If you know me in person or on Facebook, you are probably aware that I am pro-life, like super pro-life.
You may not know that I am also a recent convert to Catholicism, or that one of the main reasons I was attracted to the Catholic Church was her consistent emphasis on the importance of speaking out for and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable of our human society—the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, the poor. I love the Catholic Church for many reasons, but very much so because she takes the call of Jesus to love the least of our brethren with utmost seriousness.
As an American Catholic, I have looked forward to Pope Francis’s visit, particularly his unprecedented address to the joint session of the United States Congress, which took place on the morning of Thursday, September 24. I had watched the warm reception by the first family of the Holy Father the day before, and I had listened to his words about protecting the environment. I know that in Laudato Si, Pope Francis ties the care for the environment with care and protection of the unborn, but I wanted to hear him make that explicit connection in his words to the American people.
Now, this is a man who makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable. On one hand, he is met with a lot of suspicion by virtue of being the leader of the Catholic Church. He has made comments that seem hostile to American tradition, calling for limits and regulation of the free enterprise and the capitalism our country has been built upon. And he talks a lot about environmental concerns and world peace. Unsurprisingly, he has been labeled by many as a liberal.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has reaffirmed the Church’s position that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and that its purpose is to create a new generation of beloved children. Prior to his visit to the United States, he has affirmed the need for protection of the unborn, and although he has emphasized the value and utmost importance of woman in the Church, he is firm on teaching that men alone are eligible for the priesthood. Unsurprisingly, he has been labeled by many as a conservative.
Pope Francis doesn’t fit. He doesn’t fit in our American political system. He is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat or Republican.
But Jesus didn’t fit in his time either. For me, it is actually an encouraging thing that the Pope has resisted categorization, whether intentionally or not. It means I can trust even more that he is listening for the voice of the Lord to lead him and lead the Christians of the world.
As I watched his address to Congress, my heart was in my throat.
Was he going to affirm the need for our elected officials to end the slaughter of innocents in our land? Was he going to condemn the barbaric practices of dismembering children in and out of the womb and then selling their body parts?
The short answer is “no.” The Pope’s speech was beautiful and elegant, so well-written and well-delivered that I was in awe of the thought, passion, and compassion that went into it. But he didn’t mention the unborn once. He didn’t take a stand on Planned Parenthood.
And so, I was disappointed. This Pope that I love, this man whom I trust as my spiritual leader, he didn’t support my cause explicitly.
Yes, there were many instances where he mentioned things that can be interpreted as a call to protect the unborn. (The Pope spoke of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development” and said, “I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.”) It is undoubtedly true that protecting the unborn is part of Catholic social teaching to advocate for the least of these. But it was also so subtle that it could have been easily overlooked or ignored (as it has been by a lot of Americans).
And so, as the Holy Father leaves my beloved country and resumes his regular pontifical duties at the Vatican, I am left with questions like these: What do I do with my disappointment? What do I do with Pope Francis and his speech before Congress?
Disappointment. It is a real feeling. It can be devastating. To have something I have hoped for—to be supported by my spiritual father in something so close to my heart—not come to pass exactly like I wanted it has brought me disappointment. But I have to remind myself of the words of Scripture where the prophet Isaiah says that “those who trust in the Lord will not be disappointed” (Isaiah 49:23 NIV). Such disappointment can be a case of misplaced trust. Pope Francis is not the Lord; he is a man who has dedicated himself to the Kingdom of God as a priest and a shepherd, but he is still a man, whose perspective on the world and experiences of the world are very different than the ones I bring to the table. It is natural for discomfort and disappointment to arise when expectations aren’t met, when worldviews bump into each other, and when my cultural assumptions are challenged.
So when I find myself disappointed by this person whom I respect so much, I am forced to press into the Lord and ask, “What do I do with my disappointment? What do I do with Pope Francis?”
First, I hear the Lord asking me to forgive the Holy Father for any perceived injustice towards me, or the American people, or the unborn citizens of our country. From watching Francis interact with others and from hearing him speak before, I know that he is full of compassion and boldness and good will and love for Christ, His Church, and all the people of the world. So I know his intent was well placed. I can give him the benefit of the doubt. I can ask the Lord to help me move past the pain and discomfort that this disappointment has caused me and truly forgive him for any perceived injustice.
Second, I hear the Lord saying, “Listen to him.” Have you seen the meme that says, “Many people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”? It’s a quote from Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Well, I am guilty as charged. Far too often, I search the statements and stories and arguments of the people in my life primarily so that I may bring forward my own ideas and opinions by picking apart what they have said. This is not charitable or loving. It is self-seeking and arrogant, even when my motivation is to help others see the truth that I have discovered. This is not to say that I shouldn’t engage in serious discussion about challenging concepts or difficult truths. Rather, I have to orient myself first to listen, second to learn and think, and third to respond with thoughtful feedback and experience.
Had Pope Francis echoed my sentiments and convictions in his speech to Congress, I have to confess that I would have posted as many memes as possible showing others how right I have been and how important my agenda is. I may not have been in a place to listen or to engage in thoughtful dialogue.
As I wrote in a previous post, the Christian family on earth desperately needs to learn the art of conversation. We are so quick to judge our brothers and sisters for what we hear them saying or doing without sitting down, talking it through, and truly listening with a heart of love.
Where do I go from here?
Because I so greatly respect Pope Francis and his position in the Church and the testimony of what he has done and is doing to bring the Kingdom of God, I need to listen and prayerfully consider what he is saying. I am going to print off transcripts of his speeches—all of them from this US trip—and read them with a heart of listening and understanding, asking the Holy Spirit for help. Even though it will make me uncomfortable, I have to do this. I want to extend the same charity to the Holy Father that I know he would extend to me if we were to sit down and have a conversation.
And then I will ask the Lord to help me sort out where to go from here. I still believe that abortion is a great evil and needs to be addressed politically and socially. But maybe my approach needs to change? If I am not willing to ask this question, then I have to admit that my agenda is more important to me than listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of the Church worldwide. Which is something I don’t want to be true.
In the Psalms, David proclaims of the Lord, “You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom” (Psalm 51:6 NASB). Because God desires truth in my deepest part, I can trust that when I ask Him to show it to me, He will do it.
And that is what I am asking. How about you?