It was just last week that I received an email from Pope Francis. He wrote me having seen my interview with Tavis Smiley and said he sympathized with my appeal for a Church that serves the needs of the people. Pope Francis requested that I come to the Vatican to meet with him to discuss the papacy and his efforts to redirect the Church’s attention. Of course, I immediately accepted and began to create my agenda for our meeting: women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, reproductive justice, and…my alarm went off. It was just a dream. Sigh…
Totally disappointed at the realization of its ridiculousness, I wondered why Pope Francis had invaded my dreams. Could it have been prophetic as my good friend and colleague (jokingly) suggested? Or perhaps I’m narcissistic enough to fantasize that I have such wisdom to share. Either way, no other pope has ever occupied my thoughts in such a way.
Whereas Michele Stopera Freyhauf has discussed feeling cautiously optimistic about our new pope, I have begun to feel enthusiastically optimistic. Am I losing my feminist edge? As a Catholic woman who has lived through four popes – Pope Francis is number 5 in my lifetime – I have never felt any connection to the papacy. In fact, I have felt pure anger and disgust at some of what I have seen. I have wondered, “Where is the mission of Jesus?” How does all of the glitz and glamour, the oppression, demand for obedience, and of course, the sex abuse cover up compare to the work of Jesus? I longed for a new Pope John XXIII who commissioned Vatican II and of course, for a Vatican III.
At first introduction to Pope Francis I also shared Michele’s cautious optimism. A Jesuit Liberation Theologian from Latin America was encouragings and seemed the best possible option given those in the running for the papacy. Learning of his commitment to the poor was inspiring and although he was not “woman friendly,” as many pointed out, no one thought we would have a pope elected who would ordain women; these kind of ideas were not represented among any of the existing cardinals. So, do we ignore the positive qualities because of the missing ideologies or embrace those elements that can possibly lead to the changes many of us hope for?
- In his first papal act, rather than following tradition and bestowing a blessing on the crowd outside the Vatican, Pope Francis asked the people to bless him. This act moved me to tears as it was an acknowledgement of the full humanity of all.
- His immediate demonstration of humility and concern for those oppressed and disenfranchised demonstrates a true commitment to serve the people of the Church rather than the politics of the Vatican.
- Upon his inauguration the Pope made clear that he will focus on ecumenical dialogue and welcome persons of all faiths to the table including those who do not identify with particular religious traditions.
- Pope Francis has supported same-sex unions as recently as 2010. Although he has maintained the Church’s position on same-sex marriage and adoption by LGBTQ families, he called for a compromise through the support of same-sex unions.
- By choosing to hold a major ceremony in the chapel of a juvenile prison rather than at the Vatican or a Rome basilica where it has been traditionally held, the Pope was making a strong statement about how he understands the mission of Jesus and who is included in the Church.
- On Holy Thursday during the ceremony at the juvenile prison, Pope Francis continued his “gleeful abandonment of tradition” and chose to wash the feet 12 inmates, two of whom were women prisoners – one a Serbian Muslim. Never before has a woman been acknowledged in this ceremony.
- Pope Francis has stressed the “fundamental” importance of women in the Church noting that they were the first witnesses of Christ and have a special role in spreading the faith.
- Through his continued challenging of tradition, the Pope has started the processes of releasing the “bondage of fear” that has resulted in silence amongst the Church’s leadership. With this, the Gospel of Inclusion is being embraced and recognized as a central part of Jesus’ mission.
I appreciate the many concerns that have been shared by feminists about the new pope and my own agenda as a self-identified feminist progressive Catholic has not changed. That said, this is the first time I have felt that a pope – at least in my lifetime – has offered hope. Pope Francis recognizes that particular persons and groups feel rejected and oppressed by the Catholic Church. He also recognizes that much of what the Vatican has represented for many is in direct opposition of the mission of Jesus.
With these recognitions, Pope Francis is looking for compromise – a way to build a bridge – and with this bridge, I believe, a path will be paved for additional change. As much as we want to see change all at once, this is not how change happens. Pope Francis is taking us in a direction that I have not seen in my lifetime. And with this, my faith has been renewed, and I have genuinely felt connected to my Church. Hence, Pope Francis is invading my dreams as no other pope has.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist. She is Director of the Center for Women’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education at Claremont Graduate University, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence. She is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.