In his remarks to the press this past Sunday, following the release of Antonio Spadaro’s broad-ranging and inspiring interview with Pope Francis, New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan called the pope’s pronouncements “a breath of fresh air” and added, “He’s a great relief to all of us.”
I have felt it, too: relief. Pope Francis has redefined no dogma, changed no doctrine; he has done little more, actually, than change the tone of the voice of Rome, and yet that tonal adjustment has allowed an exhalation that feels like a sigh of completion. Amid a Church that has held its breath for decades while traipsing the wire between a pre- and post-concillar understanding of itself, this feels like we have finally reached the other side. As I read the profoundly pastoral Spadaro interview, though, I kept wishing my friend Sarah could read it, too.
I never met Sarah; ours was one of those modern online friendships defined by two people who never reside in the same time zone, yet—thanks to the combox and email—become intimate, devoted friends. She was a Lutheran, a scholar, a veteran who served twenty years in the military and then took up accounting, and she wrote the most fascinating, informative missives. When I mentioned that I was considering purchasing a handgun, Sarah gave me serious advice about what weapon might best suit me and also sent along images of handbags suitable for gun-carrying. When I was slow to make my purchase she hectored me about it, because, in her considered opinion, self-sufficient, firearms-proficient women could civilize the whole world in a week.
I loved her. She was kind and funny, and generous; the sort of person who is aware of her own shortcomings and therefore quick to give everyone else the benefit of a doubt. Although a Lutheran, she loved the Rosary and prayed the beads every night along with a podcast recording I had made of each mystery. She read, and loved, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Edith Stein, and also Pope Benedict XVI, with whom she identified, calling him “undervalued.” Still, she declared she could never convert because “the church wouldn’t have me, as I am.”
By which she meant, as a post-operative, transgendered woman.
It broke my heart that Sarah believed this. I urged inquiry with a priest, but this child of God was convinced that there was no room for transgendered persons in the Catholic church. I thought there might be, and made a few discreet inquiries of my own; what I encountered was a general sense of dis-ease among the clerics and theologians I asked. None of them said “No, there is no room” but none of them would definitively say “yes” either. The dialogues on Sarah always held a built-in tension—that breath-holding, again—as the questions of sin and disorder were haggled out. One theology student asked me, as if I would know, whether sexual reassignment surgery didn’t indicate a “permanent rejection of God’s plan that might make reconciliation impossible.”
I understood the direction of his thinking: Must Sarah confess as a sin the surgery through which an identity had been formed that put a lifetime of suicidal thoughts to rest and brought a measure of peace? Must Sarah (whose baptismal name I never knew) do what was possible, within constraints of health and finances, to henceforth present as a man in order to come to church?
Such theological questions cannot be ignored, and in time they would have to be addressed, but I felt they were meant for later—for the grappling of spiritual surgeons and doctors of the church. I was merely, in the parlance of the pope, doing simple triage by asking, “can this wounded soul be seen? May Sarah be admitted into this field hospital for sinners?” I considered my job, and the job of the church, as being first of all to love the person before me; to see Sarah, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “not simply with my eyes and feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ”; to respect the dignity of this human person seeking a relationship with Christ and then offer an arm of support for the journey. This might mean challenges down the road, certainly, but first and foremost it would require an unambiguous welcome.
That welcome was extended last week, when Pope Francis spoke words that were similar to Benedict’s in content but different in tone, more vigorous in outreach, and received by many with a cleansing breath of release:
[The whole Church] must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths . . . We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires.
It seems to say, “Yes, Sarah could be admitted into this field hospital.” What happened after that would—as with all of us—depend upon a willingness to surrender to Christ through his church and the lights with which it has been endowed by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps after hearing “yes,” Sarah might have decided “no,” and that would be that. But a soul seeking the Lord would not have stood at our steps feeling too prejudged to even inquire. That matters.
Sarah became seriously ill in 2012 and because of the nature of our online friendship, I could only assume with sadness—when my emails of inquiry began to bounce back to me—that my kind, funny, Rosary-loving correspondent had finally passed away. Perhaps Sarah has now been shown a reserved place in Eternity. I like to think we will meet in Purgatory, with Sarah making a bit of room for me, as our imperfections are burned away.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.