On Wednesday, Pope Francis went into St. Peter’s Square, where a crowd had gathered, and saw a pilgrim who has certainly been met in his life with averted gazes, and worse. His skin was covered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of bulbous tumors that contorted his features. Francis embraced him, touched his face, and prayed with him. There is a picture of him kissing the man’s head, where there is no unmarked skin and tumors push through his thin hair. (This is the result of a disease called neurofibromatosis.) The image was electrifying, in a way that mercy can be. But it took on more significance as a stage in what many people are hoping is Francis’s own pilgrimage.
The day before the embrace in the square, the Vatican released a “preparatory document”for an Extraordinary General Assembly, to be held in October, 2014. Francis has asked a synod of bishops from around the world to come to Rome and talk about families. (The official title is Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.) The bishops are also supposed to answer a questionnaire about modern families, the actual ones in their communities. More than that, they have been asked, according to Vatican Radio, “to share it as widely as possible”—with laypeople, too. A pilgrim can also be a pollster, asking questions along the way. There are thirty-nine of them in the document, including these:
5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
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?
What Francis seems to be looking for is not a doctrinal or political response to same-sex unions but a pastoral one: taking modern families as they are and live, and seeing how the Catholic Church can be part of their lives. (There is not a question about how best to lobby legislatures.) The synod, according to the document, is meant to address “concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago.” Its summary of these concerns is not in all respects liberal; it mentions “forms of feminism hostile to the Church,” and emphasizes the indissolubility of marriage. And certain situations that it calls novel, like that of single parents and of dowries “understood as the purchase price of the woman,” have been less unheard of than unheeded.
But there are the seeds of something radical here. There is, for one thing, an attempt to get past pretense. It asks how many people “in your particular church” are remarried, or separated, or are children whose families aren’t the kind in church picture books, and how to reach and include them. In terms of abortion, it asks how people could be persuaded to accept the Church’s teachings—but also how good a job churches are doing at teaching them about “natural” means of family planning, like the rhythm method. Mercy was also a word that came up, with regard to families living “irregular” lives.
It’s not too early to wonder if that synod could be a landmark moment for Francis’s papacy, and his Church. Francis has begun a discussion about the Church’s priorities, notably in an interview with a Jesuit magazine in which he wished the Church away from its obsession with issues like homosexuality. Now his bishops will be coming to him. Many of them are making a very different noise than the one we have heard from their Pope. The greetings might be stranger and more difficult ones than any Francis has experienced in St. Peter’s Square. And the synod will likely require a different sort of leadership than we’ve entirely seen from him. Francis has shown that he can come down hard on, for example, Germany’s Bishop of Bling, who was using church funds for expensive flights and to renovate a luxurious residence. But maybe the weight of the Church will defeat him. It won’t be enough to be an example and provocateur, or some humble mendicant.
How strong a Pope is Francis? The picture of his kiss of the disfigured man was called beautiful, because, if one is to be honest, many people who couldn’t look away from it might not have been willing to look at all if the Pontiff were Photoshopped out, and the man were there alone. It is one thing, though, to admire a Pope for living the way most people couldn’t. It is another to have a Pope who looks at the way most people do live, and embraces them.
Photograph: Rex Features/AP.