Just over two years ago, on June 12, 2016, a mass shooting took place in Florida. An Islamic fundamentalist opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and injuring 59. The nightclub was a favourite of the gay community, and those who died were LGBTI.
Afterwards, heartbroken families came to claim their dead – but one body remained unclaimed. His father identified him alright, but would not take possession of his remains. He couldn’t cope with the revelation that his son was gay. Even in death, he didn’t want anything to do with him. He couldn’t open his heart to his own dead son. Fortunately, other family members did. But how sad that families could be divided like that.
Difference can challenge us, upset our equilibrium, make us uncomfortable. Thirty years ago, I was a young Redemptorist working in the Philippines. Sometimes in the town or in the countryside, I would be the only European around. I drew attention, especially from children. They would stop and look. It gave me a sense of what it is like to be different.
The striking thing about Jesus was his attitude to others. He had a big heart. Jesus was a master of welcome, generosity, accommodation, inclusion, tolerance. The only people he couldn’t deal with were those who thought they didn’t need him – the superior ones, the self-righteous ones. Jesus embraced everyone else. Zaccheaus, Bartimaeus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery. Prostitute, outcast, corrupt public official, it didn’t matter to Jesus. All are part of God’s family. God’s Kingdom is a place of one hundred thousand welcomes.
Jesus knew all too well that no one is perfect and no family is perfect, and families and relationships are complicated. This is a truth that, as individuals and as a church, we must never forget.
In his encyclical on marriage and family, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis makes it clear that no one should feel excluded from God’s love. All have a home in the church, he says. All are welcome. The church must help families of every sort, and people in every state of life, know that, even in their imperfections, they are loved by God and can help others experience that love.
Family relationships are a dynamic process. Marriage is a dynamic process, hopefully always growing, always deepening. We need to encourage each other, accompany each other, help each other grow, especially those in difficult domestic situations.
It is important, Francis says, for pastors to assist those whose marriages have faltered and help them feel part of the church community. He outlines a process that could lead divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to the sacraments, and points out that these couples “are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such, since they remain part” of the church.
Francis is a realist. He upholds traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality, but when it comes to assisting people, he says, the church must not apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at a person’s life.” People in “irregular situations” or non-traditional families, like single mothers, or those who are LGBT, need “understanding, comfort and acceptance.”
An open house, a big heart is what we must have. Hold fast to the ideal of marriage and family and sexuality, as the church teaches, but with compassion, always showing mercy, taking people’s complex situations into account.
In her memoir The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird tells of the power of acceptance in her own life.
“I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, garbled speech.
“When classmates asked, ‘What happened to your lip? I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.
“There was, however, a teacher in the second grade that we all adored—Mrs Leonard was her name. Every year we had a hearing test. Mrs Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back—things like ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ I waited for those words that God must have put into her mouth, seven words that changed my life. Mrs Leonard said in her whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’”
Everything changed for Mary Ann Bird that day. For the first time outside of her own family, she felt accepted and loved and lovable. The attitude we should have toward everyone.
Francis sums it up in three words. “A big heart,” he says. That’s what we must have for each other as families and as family of church. A big heart. A big heart toward those who carry visible wounds like Mary Ann Bird, a big heart toward a loved one whose marriage is in crisis, a big heart towards the sibling caught up in a world of addiction and ruin, a big heart toward the teenager struggling with her sexuality or gender identity, a big heart, Francis says, even toward “those who have made a shipwreck of their lives.” What a consoling, challenging statement!
A big heart, a big heart, a generous heart – our duty, our challenge as Christians, as families, as family of church.