Marybeth Stepek, Contributing Writer
Anyone who pays attention to the news is aware that Pope Francis is making waves, both in the Catholic community and outside of it. His acts of humility, unabashed kindness and frank tolerance reveal a man who is not only exemplifying the very best of what Catholicism should be, but forging a connection with those of us who do not share his faith.
“Who am I to judge?” These words, uttered by Francis during an in-flight interview on his return trip from Brazil, were my first hint that maybe I should start paying attention to this man. I’m big on the “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” thing that Jesus said, and this very issue was one of the things that ultimately led me to leave the Catholic Church. Over and over again, I was confronted with people who cast judgment like a fishing net, ensnaring anyone they had deemed “sinful” or “wrong” — or in some extreme cases, just “different” — and it was all done in the name of Catholicism. I knew many people who were exhausted trying to be a part of a faith that seemed to condemn their very existence, primarily my gay and lesbian friends.
And then the pope says, “Who am I to judge?” and I thought, well, isn’t that kind of your whole job? But I was bitter, angry that I had lost the faith that I had struggled to maintain since I was a child, and suddenly this man was saying what I had been wanting to hear for so long. This is why Francis is important. He is not changing Church doctrine; he is returning to it. He is reminding his followers that we are all sinners and it is not judgment but love and acceptance that bring people to Jesus. I know it sounds simple, but during the last few years of my life, I was surrounded by people, students and administrators alike, who hid behind their faith to justify the horrible things they did and said.
And now the leader of the Catholic Church is saying no, not that way. He is bringing attention to the heartbreaking plight of the poor across the world; he is not afraid to point out what is wrong with capitalism; and he continues to embrace everyone, regardless of their sins. I seem to recall that Jesus guy doing some similar things.
When I was little, I used to imagine Jesus when I was alone or scared or unbearably sad, and he would sit with me and stroke my hair. This Jesus made me feel loved and worth something even when I struggled to feel that love and worth for myself. When I grew up, I left the Catholic Church because I felt that the Jesus talked about in the churches I had been going to was not my Jesus, the one who held sad children and loved every person with unfettered, wild abandon. When I look at Pope Francis, I see a man who is not only a spiritual leader, but a man who understands that the world is a gritty, complicated place full of broken, lonely people who only want to know that there is a God to be found who loves them exactly the way they are, no terms or conditions applied.