Pope Francis is full of gentle surprises. He is surely the most down-to-earth pope of my lifetime, from where he lives (in community with others rather than in the Vatican's papal apartments) to how he lives (as simply and humbly as possible). He embraces people from all walks of life and genuinely seems to love being the father-figure of the giant family that is the Catholic Church.
The pope has also shown tentative but unprecedented sensitivity to LGBTQ+ Catholics, who have long dwelt quietly on the margins of the church. During his tenure, he has encouraged outreach and ministry to the LGBTQ+ community. Pope Francis recently had some reassuring words for parents of LGBTQ+ children, or, as he phrased it, children of different sexual orientations.
"Never condemn your children," said Pope Francis, speaking unscripted at a weekly general audience. He urged parents to accompany their children rather than "hide behind an attitude of condemnation." While it may seem redundant to remind parents to accompany their own children, a lot of LGBTQ+ kids can tell heartbreaking stories of being kicked out of the house and/or disowned by their family when they came out.
As the mother of an LGBTQ+ child who is now an adult, I find such cold cruelty hard to imagine. But then I think of a gay friend from college who, when he died of AIDS, was mourned and buried by friends, because his birth family had cut him out of their lives and hearts. So there are definitely parents in the world who need to hear the pope's wise words.
Accompanying a child who comes out means that a parent must come out, too. Even if you have always been a supportive ally of LGBTQ+ people in general, your dedication to acceptance and inclusion is more immediate, more personal, when it's your child. You are acutely aware of the persecution, injustice and danger of bodily harm that LGBTQ+ people continue to face in our society, in spite of the advances in civil rights that have been made.
If you are part of a parish, you may find yourself on the defensive, if not ostracized, when you stick up for your child. Coming out as a parent can be a lonely walk if the support you've always counted on from your church group is pulled out from under you. It gives you a glimpse of the pain that a child rejected by their family suffers.
The church can be an unkind and unforgiving place for LGBTQ+ people and their families. I appreciate that Pope Francis continues to balance carefully between official church teaching and real-life pastoral care. The pope's latest words to parents of LGBTQ+ kids are welcome, but I suspect they come too late for parents of my generation. Our LGBTQ+ children have grown up with precious little support from the church they were baptized into, and so most have shaken the dust of Catholicism from their feet. Our children felt that the church left them first, before they left the church. They were sometimes told they were sinful, deviant, in need of conversion, as though God had made a mistake in creating them. None of this is true, but when a youth group leader says this stuff and you're a teenager coming to grips with your sexual orientation being different from your friends, the secret damage is done. You swallow your truth along with your fear and move far away from a place that does not welcome you.
We can't blame our LGBTQ+ loved ones for leaving the church when, in light of the church's behavior, it's really the only path that makes sense for them. We parents often hold on by mere fingernails to a divine church we love, but a manmade institution that doesn't love.
Pope Francis can usher in a much-needed, long-awaited change in the church's treatment of its LGBTQ+ children. He can start by listening to our LGBTQ+ kids, reacting with compassion, and wrapping them in unconditional love, which is exactly the definition of a parent's job. It's also exactly what Jesus would have us do.
Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at email@example.com. The views expressed here are her own.