Last Wednesday, Pope Francis held an audience in St. Peter’s Square before fifty thousand people. One person, however, stood out from the multitude: one whose presence echoed a passage from St. Matthew: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” In the Gospel story, Our Lord stretched forth His hand, touched the leper, and willed it. In St. Peter’s Square, Our Lord’s vicar stretched forth his hands, embraced the man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, and willed through prayer that he might find peace from his suffering. Francis held the man—his spiritual son—and kissed his blighted face.
And the world looked on… and wept.
The photographs of this meeting are more than images of an emotional moment. They are, taken together, an icon of our times. Society and humanity are afflicted with disorders far more terrible than the one disfiguring the poor soul who laid his diseased head on the Holy Father’s breast. It is the multitude, and not just the leper, who is now in need of cleansing. If only they knew to Whom they should raise their voices and adore.
He is yet willing.
Since the world will not cry out to the Source of all healing, His vicar is crying out to the world instead. Pope Francis’ voice rang out the day before his encounter in St. Peter’s Square with the sick man—a call for the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme of “The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” If the culture is sick, the foundation of human culture must be made clean: the human family. The assembly will take place in October 2014.
In the preparatory document released by the Vatican, Pope Francis gives direction to the pilgrimage he is preparing toward reaching out as a pastor to a lost flock. “The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world,” the document reads, “is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community.” It goes on to outline the Church’s positions on marriage, procreation, the sanctity of life, parenthood, catechesis, and other matters in an eight-part questionnaire for the bishops to answer about families in their own dioceses.
Though Pope Francis said in an interview on September 30th that the Church and her pastoral ministry should not obsess on the negative issues of gay “marriage” and other hot-button topics touching matrimony, the document does not shy away from the real issues. Here is a sampling of the questions pertaining to homosexual relationships:
- a) Is there a law in your country recognizing civil unions for people of the same sex and equating it in some way to marriage?
- b) What is the attitude of the local and particular Churches towards both the State as the promoter of civil unions between persons of the same sex and the people involved in this type of union?
- c) What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?
- d) In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?
Just as Pope Francis reached out to the man inflicted with neurofibromatosis, so too is he reaching out to touch those involved in same-sex unions, difficult or irregular marital situations, and those closed to life. And just as it is evident that Francis’ embrace of the disfigured man was no publicity stunt, so too is this motion of his to embrace the families of the world motivated by pastoral care rather than by politics or doctrine. The assembly’s objective is to record honest and accurate assessments of where families stand in modern society, and then ask the question: how can the Church touch their lives through revitalization and evangelization?
How can the Church make them clean?
The synod is a call to consider “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago,” and is bold enough to call attention not only to the issue of same-sex unions but also to “the widespread practice of cohabitation… presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary… forms of feminism hostile to the Church…” and “the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life.”
In these diseased days, these are incisive measures. But the battle for a cure is over nothing less than the future of human civilization, a struggle over the roots of Christian culture. That is why this call for assembly is radical—it is a challenge to the apostles of our day to disregard precedent and posturing and be apostolic. It challenges our bishops to call a spade a spade in the marital ring, and touch families so that whole peoples may be made clean. The questions dig down deep to resolve how such evils as abortion and contraception can be promulgated and preached without driving away a sickly race. How can the Church be merciful, so that we as a Church may obtain God’s mercy?
Humility and love, says our Pontiff.
This synod emphasizes the open arms of Holy Mother Church—open to receive all in the embrace that Francis called a “big brotherhood” on the night he was elected Pope. His embrace of the man in St. Peter’s Square should serve as a sign of that call to be cleansed in Christ. After all, the spiritual cleansing of St. Francis occurred when he embraced a leper who proved to be Christ Himself. May Pope Francis’ embrace be the beginning of the cleansing of many—and especially, we pray, our brother in Christ who received that embrace.
The world has called the images of that embrace beautiful. It is a great mystery that something depicting such piteous deformity could be called beautiful. Perhaps the world is not beyond the reach of Pope Francis’ touch.