What Are We to Make of Pope Francis’ Inclusive Prison Visit?

Pope Francis preaches at a Naples mass on the day he visited a prison in that city.

Pope Francis joined 90 prison inmates for lunch during his visit to Naples last Saturday, including 10 from the ward which houses those who are gay, transgender, or have HIV/AIDS. They were among the 1,900 inmates who participated in the lottery for a chance to eat with the pope.

The pope did not address LGBT issues specifically in his talk to the prisoners, but stuck to general themes about God’s love for those incarcerated.  In his talk, he stated:

“Sometimes it happens that you feel disappointed, discouraged, abandoned by all: but God does not forget his children, he never abandons them! He is always at our side, especially in trying times; he is a father ‘rich in mercy’ who always turns his peaceful and benevolent gaze on us, always waits for us with open arms. This is a certainty that instills consolation and hope, especially in moments of difficulty and sadness. Even if we have done wrong in life, the Lord does not tire of showing us the path of return and encounter with him. The love of Jesus for each one of us is a source of consolation and hope. It’s a fundamental certainty for us: nothing can ever separate us from the love of God! Not even the bars of a prison.”

The inclusion of the prisoners who are trans, gay, and HIV+ was not a special outreach by Pope Francis, but it is significant that their identities did not prevent the pope from meeting with them.  A Washington Blade article quoted New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo about the importance of this papal gesture:

“This is another example that Pope Francis does not consider sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status as something that should prevent him from engaging them in dialogue and conversation. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, these same personal characteristics were causes for the popes to shun and ignore people, much to the discredit of the church.”

The Washington Blade story also cited Andrea Miluzzo, director of LGBT News Italia, who said that there was an additional positive LGBT angle to the pope’s visit to Naples:

“Members of the local affiliate of Arcigay, an Italian LGBT advocacy group, were among those who were allowed to stand along the streets of Scampia, a poor Neapolitan neighborhood overrun with crime, earlier in the day as Francis passed through in his open-air car known as the pope-mobile.”

Pope Francis’ willingness to include trans, gay, and HIV+ prisoners in his luncheon and to allow an LGBT advocacy group on the parade route, but not mentioning either of them in his talks, shows the complicated approach he is taking to LGBT issues, and perhaps to other issues, too.  In an editorialThe National Catholic Reporter analyzed what they see as the pope’s strategy:

“Francis perplexes Europeans and North Americans who have split the analysis along a liberal-conservative axis, writes [Austen] Ivereigh, ‘because he uses a lens and a language that come from outside those categories.’

“Francis wades into slums, embraces those who otherwise might inspire revulsion, refuses to draw boundaries so rigidly as to exclude anyone, welcomes all questions and robust debate, and leads with the God of mercy.

“He preaches ‘the art of encounter,’ which requires moving beyond the safety of the church building and walking with the people. It is an approach schooled in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the norm is broken lives, messy, stressed and needy.

“It is in those circumstances, he preaches, in the irrational embrace of the prodigal, that grace abounds. In a recent visit to a parish in Rome, he instructed its leaders to avoid telling people where they were wrong, but to ‘get closer’ to the people, walking with them and respecting their needs.”

The power in Pope Francis’ symbolic gestures lies in the hope that other church leaders will soon imitate him, thus opening up greater possibility for encounter and discussion on LGBT and other important issues, too.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

7 thoughts on “What Are We to Make of Pope Francis’ Inclusive Prison Visit?

  1. Peter March 24, 2015 / 7:53 am

    Expressing one’s God-given LGBT nature in a same sex union is not, as Pope Francis’ comments imply, doing wrong in life. Nor does that act of union necessarily estrange one from God or require God’s mercy and forgiveness as Pope Francis again implied. Nor is HIV/AIDS a punishment from God visited upon the LGBT community for expressions or yearnings of love implicit in same sex unions, again, as Pope Francis’ visit to some people having HIV/AIDS suggests. This Pope still doesn’t get it although he is getting closer than his predecessors. The most optimistic view is that Pope Francis is seeking to change attitudes toward the LGBT community so that a future revision of the Catechism that eliminates the designation of “intrinsic disorder” to all LGBT people and sees them as full participants in God will have more of a chance of being accepted by archbishops, bishops, and, eventually, the laity.

  2. Fr Anthony March 24, 2015 / 8:00 am

    Francis is treating people as people without dividing them into groups. It is as it should be.

    • Peter March 24, 2015 / 11:04 am

      Not so. In his recent visit to the Philippines he urged the bishops, priests and nuns present at a mass for them to “proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family” and later during the Meeting of Families of the same day, he said, “the family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life…” Both of those instances show the pope to be not only dividing people into groups but, more significantly, to be denigrating the LGBT community. It should be pointed out that science and psychiatry both show the LGBT spectrum to be a normal part of the human sexuality/gender spectrum whereas the church resists science (as it has for centuries) and continues to view the LGBT people as having an “intrinsic disorder”.

      • Sister Lea September 26, 2015 / 10:44 am

        Yes, Fr. Anthony, “Francis is treating people as people without dividing them into groups.” But I would agree with Peter and say there is unintended doublespeak going on here when the Pope gives “defensive messages” as to alternative “presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family”

        I realize that Pope Francis is trying to hold a greatly divided Church together with his love for all. The solution to the division may rather be a love which allows diversity of rite, diversity of interpretation of scripture, governance and liturgy…as is the case with the 20+ Eastern Rites in full communion with Rome…a Vatican II Rite perhaps.

        In such diversity, the rites could challenge and love and allow each other’s separate yet equal status in the Church as in the ancient days of Peter and Paul.

  3. ermadurk March 24, 2015 / 9:38 am

    This is the kind of news I want to share with everyone. Hope abounds!

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