ViewpointPapal Impressions

Last fall, while in Rome to take part in the extraordinary, multi-faith, Vatican-sponsored colloquium on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage”, my wife and I had the privilege and wonderful opportunity of meeting briefly with His Holiness, Pope Francis. Later that same day we were even blessed to glimpse a little bit of his personal residence, lunching with some other guests in his dining room, and seeing the small chapel where he offers his private prayers and begins each day with the celebration of Mass.

Several impressions linger from that treasured visit. One is of the Holy Father’s very real compassion for all people. We watched as he made a point of seeking out the disabled who had come to see him, embracing each of them with a touching tenderness and affection. We stood by as he conversed warmly with a fellow priest from Latin America in their native Spanish. This is a man who daily stands before thousands, interacts with teeming crowds, and meets one-on-one with dozens of petitioners and well-wishers. Yet a genuine, very personal empathy radiates from this pontiff, and flows almost tangibly out to each one he engages.

He is a remarkable listener. As our brief turn came we shared the work of our global legal ministry, Alliance Defending Freedom, he presented an almost laser-like focus, asked a thoughtful question, giving generously of his very limited time to really hear and understand what we were saying, and offering his encouragement and blessing. Across 35 years in public service, I have interacted with a sizable array of people in high positions – church leaders as well as politicians – and can attest to how truly unusual that kind of attentiveness is inn such a crowded and demanding environment.

Kneeling before the altar in the little chapel where Pope Francis worships, we were warmed and encouraged by the realization that the Holy Father begins and ends each day in much that same position … praying to his Father in heaven, and listening, no doubt, with that same consummate focus he offers to those who seek his attention through the day.

Knowing that the world’s most recognized and influential Christian leader endeavors so conscientiously to synchronize his private faith with his public remarks is of particular inspiration in considering His Holiness’ visible, outspoken commitment to the sanctity of life and marriage.

The incredible response of religious leaders from all over the world to last fall’s marriage colloquium was a great testimony to the unique authority the Pope brings to this increasingly vital issue. And the fact that His Holiness was so eloquent and outspoken in calling these leaders, for all their diverse creeds and theological disagreement, to unanimous recognition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has enormously positive implications for the ongoing cultural and political debate.

By the same token, not only the pope’s words, but his very life and manner – the genuine empathy and engagement we saw him bring to every personal encounter – underscores his enduring commitment to the sanctity of every life, in imago Dei

Because the importance of religious freedom is grounded in the sanctity not only of life, but of the individual conscience … and because the growing effort to distort and destroy marriage are more and more the springboard for legal attacks on religious liberty … the Holy Father’s clear and repeated statements in defense of life and marriage are a crucial encouragement to the ongoing struggle of Christians around the world to preserve – and expand – religious freedom.

As the pope, his comments on many issues are inevitably scrutinized, quoted in and out of context, and often clouded by controversy. But on marriage and life, his words and their meaning are unmistakable. Let us pray that his Church and our world is listening as attentively as he does.

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