Two days before Fr. James Martin, SJ, shared an image of the personal letter sent to him by Pope Francis, in which the pope offered Fr. Martin affirmation, guidance, and prayers for the upcoming Outreach LGBTQ Catholic Ministry Webinar, my wife and I sat around a small backyard firepit with Darren and his partner, Sean. Darren was my wife’s childhood friend, but they had not seen each other for 20 years. When she heard that he now lives in Calgary, where we are visiting my wife’s family for the summer, she cued up a visit. Although the four of us had only a tenuous connection through a childhood friendship, we talked for several hours about topics ranging from meditation practices to American politics to reggae music.
At one point, Sean began to speak about his grandmother, who had recently died. “She loved Jesus. A lot. Like maybe too much!” he said with a smile. I asked him what religion she was (religion had not come up yet in the conversation). “Catholic,” he responded. Then he began to describe the way she viewed life. She was, above all, he said, full of peace. She had an uncanny ability to forgive and to accept life, even though she had also seen great suffering. She would look out her window towards the mountains and say, “I have all I need here.” She was joyful. Sean said it seemed to him that it was her Catholic religion that gave her this peace and joy, because it allowed her to see “how everything had its proper place.”
Sean was raised Catholic but no longer believes or practices in any explicit way. He recognizes that people take all sorts of religious paths to find peace, but he knew what worked for his grandmother. Darren was not raised Catholic, but he has practiced Buddhist meditation for years and has done several week-long silent retreats at Catholic retreat centers that rented their facilities to other groups. He said the hosts were struck by the devotion of the retreatants: “Catholics are never this silent!” In all of this I kept thinking of the thread wrapped halfway around the world from GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, referenced by Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited—the fragile thread of grace that runs throughout our histories, even into this Canadian backyard bonfire.
On the drive home my wife and I talked about what would happen if we invited Sean and Darren to our parish, if we wanted to share with them the faith that has so immensely helped us. Would there be time and space for them to encounter the beauty of the liturgy and the joy of the community before they felt lectured to? Would they have the opportunity to experience the peace that comes with resting in God’s unconditional love before feeling that they were being talked about or demonized? Pope Francis’s letter to Fr. Martin—published less than two days later—was not abstract; as I read it I saw Sean and Darren’s faces. I thought about the desire that my wife and I have to share our experience of Christ with them, rooted in our trust in the teachings of the Church regarding the meaning of sexuality. What path did the Pope commend and recommend? “Cercanía, compasión, y ternura.” Stay close, have compassion, be tender. These words did not strike me as ideological, but as eminently realistic.
I have listened to and followed the popes in my lifetime—not only because I was educated to do so by Ignatius Press, EWTN, First Things, the Register and other Catholic media, but because I continually find my own experiences explained, challenged, and enlightened by papal teachings. This was true of St. John Paul II, who I saw twice in his last years of life and whose teachings guided me into my early twenties. It was true of Benedict XVI, who was Pope when I lived in Rome for two years and who introduced me to the depth, diversity, and beauty of the Catholic intellectual tradition. And it is especially true of Pope Francis, who has guided me through marriage, fatherhood, and the beginning of my professional life as a teacher and campus minister.
When I began my first job at a Catholic school in my mid-twenties, I was fresh out of 5 years in seminary, where I had studied the spiritual life, classical humanities, and philosophy. I had all the right answers about everything. I knew who was in and who was out. I possessed a naive clarity about philosophical and theological concepts that made me feel like I knew where everything—and everyone—fit. This was undoubtedly the product of my own temperament and being in my idealistic mid-twenties, and it was reinforced by the kind of Catholic education I had received.
In those first years of teaching and working in ministry I experienced the collision of my crystal-clear ideas with messy reality. There were people who reinforced my sense of having it all figured out and praised me for it, and there were others who, implicitly or explicitly, challenged my intellectual self-assuredness. Some of them warned me that certain people were not altogether trustworthy, calling into question their Catholic faith and accusing them of the unforgivable sin: being liberal. Yet when I actually met and spoke with these people, I found them to be intelligent, inquisitive, kind, and faithful. Others who I heard were admirable and exemplary “true Catholics” said and did things that dehumanized others in the name of protecting the faith. Regrettably, I participated in some of this myself.
Over the next several years as a young teacher and campus minister I experienced a fruitful tension between what I thought were crystal-clear ideas and the real-life people in front of me. As had happened in the past, the words of the Pope explained my experience: “There…exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities.” (Evangelii Gaudium 231)
Francis holds this principle dear: “Realities are more important than ideas.” The most mysterious of all realities that we must allow to challenge, correct, and deepen our ideas—even our theological concepts—are our relationships with our fellow human beings. This is what Francis means when he speaks of “the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other” (Fratelli Tutti 277). Every person we meet is irreducible, a mystery to us and to themselves. The word Francis uses to describe the act by which we enter into relationships with others is dialogue. This term is not a theologically-shallow modern cliche. For Pope Benedict XVI, the God of scripture is “a God who is in dialogue.” To be a person made in the image of God is to be in relationship, in dialogue.
True dialogue does not mean relinquishing one’s identity. Rather, Pope Benedict taught that it requires “a deep-seated knowledge of the specific identity of the various dialogue partners” (Caritas in Veritate 26). Francis echoes his predecessor’s teaching: “The solution is not an openness that spurns its own richness…I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own” (FT 143). We grow as human persons and our “personal identity matures” (Caritas in Veritate 53) when we enter relationships of true dialogue with others, even—perhaps especially—the most unexpected people. This is not abstract; it is descriptive of the experience of Christian life.
My wife and I met Jennifer* a few days ago on my sister-in-law’s back porch in the blazing midday Calgary sun. She asked about the American political situation and how a Canadian Catholic could understand American Catholics’ support of Donald Trump. We drank white Russians and talked about—what else?—abortion. She told the story of her first pregnancy, which came as a total surprise shortly after she and her now-husband were engaged. As a young Catholic who had been involved in pro-life ministries, she was deeply conflicted. She was overjoyed at the thought of having a child, but her husband was devastated and feared the ruin of their plans, their relationship, and their livelihood. She made the incredibly difficult decision to book an appointment for an abortion. As she drove to the clinic, crying and praying, she saw the vast, deep blue Alberta sky filled with clouds—and every cloud looked to her like a fetus. She did not tell us what happened next, but her son is now 19. With a big smile, she said, “it turns out my husband really likes having kids!” They have since had 3 more.
As I read the commentaries on Eucharistic coherency and the need to stand strong against the evils of abortion, I see Jennifer’s face. When Pope Francis contextualizes abortion within the broader theme of our “throwaway culture,” it helps me understand Jennifer’s story. She asked why the pro-life movement cannot do more to actually help single mothers rather than investing so much energy in what comes across as shaming. We talked about how the root of the evil is not the mother, or even the legality of the procedure, but the whole society structured in a way that makes so many women feel they have no choice but to “terminate” what should be the greatest gift.
Francis teaches from within a rich theological tradition when he invites us to “enter into other people’s lives” and let our own lives become “wonderfully complicated” (EG 270). I suppose my ideas about the realities of LGBTQ Catholics and women considering abortion are more “complicated” than they used to be, thanks to these kinds of encounters. But we believe in a God who is “dialogical,” who “lives in the word and consists of the word as ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘we’” (J. Ratzinger, Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology). It has been our family’s experience, as we try to put this theology into practice, that “our hearts expand as we step out of ourselves and embrace others” (FT 89).
At the end of our conversation with Jennifer, before we scrambled to attend to our crying children, she became very serious and said, “What do you think it was all about for Jesus?” I looked at her inquisitively. “His mother,” she said. “He was unplanned. He saw how she was looked at and treated. What if Joseph had not taken her in? He saw the way so many women were treated, how they were stoned by the religious leaders. His whole mission was to change the way the world was because he loved his mother.” I put my hands to the sides of my head and gestured that my mind was blown. “Wow. I need to think so much more about that.”
 All the names in this article have been altered out of respect for the persons involved.
Image: Sunlight reflected off Chinook Clouds from Nose Hill Urban Nature Park in Calgary, Alberta. Adobe Stock. By Autumn Sky.