Tomorrow, Pope Francis concludes his visit to World Youth Day in Poland by celebrating a closing Mass. This moment would be perfect for him to act on his call for the church to apologize to LGBT people and other marginalized groups.
There are at least three reasons why World Youth Day is an ideal moment for a papal apology.
First, World Youth Day has in the past been a time for apology and for reconciliation. Pope Benedict XVI apologized to Australian victims of clergy sexual abuse in 2008, saying to attendees in Sydney that he wished to “acknowledge the shame which we have all felt. . .I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering.” He also met privately with four victims and celebrated Mass with them. Pope John Paul II apologized in Paris during World Youth Day 1997 for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, where Catholics killed thousands of Protestants.
It would also not be the first World Youth Day during which Francis himself offered reconciling words, including on LGBT issues. In 2013, the pope said his famous “Who am I to judge?” line during an interview on the return flight from Rio. He expanded these words to “Who are we to judge?” in another in-flight interview this past June, in his call for the church to apologize.
Second, church teachings on sexuality and gender are foremost areas with which Catholics wrestle. This is especially for younger Catholics, who are increasingly affirming of LGBT rights and who are coming out in greater numbers. Critics have accused Pope Francis of tailoring messages to his audiences, but in this case, he should do just that. Eve Tushnet, a lesbian Catholic woman, offered insightful comments about what an apology on behalf of the church could and should be. She framed her thoughts around the Act of Contrition, writing at Vox:
“Even attempts to offer nuanced reflections on Christian relationships with gay communities often assume that repentance is the gay person’s role, forgiveness the Christian’s. The pope has overturned this model.
“The pope demonstrates that right relationship with God and others requires admitting fault even, and especially, toward those we have been trained to view as less moral. He has taken the lowest place at the banquet and offered his own moral authority as a mantle to cover gay people who have been harmed.”
Tushnet said, too, that Pope Francis has asked Catholics to “notice our sins” so they can be avoided in the future and amends can be made. An apology to LGBT people would even bring the church closer to God, she wrote, but only if reconciling work is carried out:
“Amends should cost us: our time and money and blood, our comfort and prior assumptions, perhaps our physical safety as we seek to serve LGBTQ people who are targeted for violence. Catholics sometimes worry that supporting gay people in need will be misunderstood as changing church teaching. But what kind of witness does our failure to support God’s LGBTQ children present?”
Acknowledging the church’s mistreatment of LGBT people would be refreshingly honest, would call the Catholic church to encounter and to dialogue with LGBT communities, and might even allow Francis to offer an unqualified and evangelical welcome to LGBT youth worldwide. But if apologizing on behalf of the Catholic church is not desirable or feasible, Pope Francis could also offer a personal apology, suggested Michelangelo Signorile of The Huffington Post:
“One thing, however, that the pope could easily do is apologize for his own harsh and, yes, violence-inciting words about gays when he was Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina in 2010. As the Argentine government was moving to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians, Bergoglio was quietly lobbying for civil unions instead, having spoken to at least one gay activist, realizing that the rights gays were deprived of were real and knowing that he and the church couldn’t support marriage.
“When that didn’t work, and the government made it clear it was moving forward on marriage. . .He issued an ugly, earth-scorching attack against gays, equating gay marriage and adoption by gay couples with the work of the Devil, and declared that gay marriage was a ‘destructive attack on God’s plan.’ “
It is harsh words like these for which Pope Francis is calling the church to apologize, said Signorile. A personal apology would not only be a powerful sign that Francis is committed to reconciling with LGBT communities, but would be a model for other church leaders to imitate.
Third, apologizing would enact World Youth Day 2016’s theme of the fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In this case, as Tushnet noted, it is not the church which is merciful towards LGBT people but rather recognizes the ways by which LGBT people and their loved ones have tirelessly shown mercy towards a church which victimizes them without remorse.
This reversal and this witness from the pontiff, Latin for bridge builder, not only acknowledges sins but calls Catholics to be converted towards Gospel inclusion. It could radically reorient how LGBT issues are handled in the global church. And if Pope Francis wanted to model even further how all Catholics should act, he could go to the margins of World Youth Day and visit the LGBT Pilgrims’ Haven, which has organized LGBT-related programming throughout the week. Let us pray that Pope Francis will seek to obtain mercy and offer healing words of apology at World Youth Day.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry