World Youth Day 2016 concluded yesterday, ending a crowded week of catechetical programs and prayer opportunities in Krakow.
Frank DeBernardo and I had hoped that Pope Francis would acknowledge gay Holocaust victims during his visit to Auschwitz, or use the week-long program to apologize to LGBT people hurt by the church, but neither occurred publicly. Still, I sense a different and powerful current happening at this World Youth Day through which Pope Francis is leading younger Catholics towards a reforming and renewing church.
Addressing youth at a prayer vigil on Saturday evening, Pope Francis urged attendees to “leave a mark on history” by being active in the world, uninhibited by fear and inspired by prayer. The pope said God seeks to work “one of the greatest miracles we can experience” through people’s own works. He focused specifically on seeking reconciliation and unity:
“[God] wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. . .to continue building the world of today. And [God] wants to build that world with you. . .
“Thinking that in this world, in our cities and our communities, there is no longer any room to grow, to dream, to create, to gaze at new horizons – in a word to live – is one of the worst things that can happen to us in life. When we are paralyzed, we miss the magic of encountering others, making friends, sharing dreams, walking at the side of others. . .
“Today, we adults need you to teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!”
He had made a similar call to radical and hospitable discipleship during the Way of the Cross earlier in the week, too. And at the closing Mass on Sunday, Francis preached about God’s unconditional love and said “that not to accept ourselves. . .means not to recognize our deepest identity” as children of God. His homily on the Gospel story of Zacchaeus and Jesus also spoke extensively about the “paralysis of shame,” which should give way to the courage of living life.
Though Francis did not comment on LGBT issues, they were surely present throughout WYD in personal conversations, catechetical sessions, and, most fundamentally, the lives of attendees. What the pope did emphasize many times are concepts like reconciliation, diversity, encounter, and dialogue. He affirmed young people struggling with questions about life or faith. These words may have challenged some attendees, but they likely confirmed what many young Catholics already know and are living out as they work for a more inclusive and just church for all.
So why and how are Pope Francis’ remarks relevant for LGBT advocates? His remarks to youth are subtly but importantly different from his predecessors’ remarks at youth events. Francis does not want youth to become the next generation of Catholics obsessed with opposing LGBT rights or other culture war issues. He focuses less on these issues and more on being a welcoming church that mediates God’s inclusive love.
But Francis is not just instructing young Catholics. He is reminding them of what they already know and what they are already doing. In many situations, they have already been living Francis’ message in their work for LGBT justice. Young Catholics are, in many regions, the most affirming group in the church. They are demanding that the church’s ministers and leaders be more pro-active when it comes to equality. Young Catholics have led the church by promoting reconciliation in their own families, schools, and communities. They embrace diversity, and they are courageously living out diverse sexual and gender identities in greater numbers than ever before. They are encountering the world with a real openness about LGBT issues, even in conservative regions.
Young Catholics can readily see that the church cannot preach hospitality if it turns away people because of their gender identities. They understand that embracing diversity must include embracing diverse sexual identities and expressions. They understand that not only can the church help reconciliation in the world, but that the church has deep wounds around gender and sexuality which must be attended to as well.
Francis seems unable or unwilling to apply his otherwise wonderful words explicitly to LGBT injustices within the church. The key now is for Pope Francis and church leaders to reverse the process of instruction. Following Jesus’ words, the pope and his staff should instead learn from the children. Such instruction would help church leaders see the new horizons towards which God calls the church. World Youth Day reminded me that young Catholics are cultivating and harvesting the seeds of equality planted by Pope Francis and an older generation of social justice Catholics.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry