Amen for acceptance

“Who am I to judge?”

Those simple words said so much. Ever since Pope Francis became leader of the Catholic Church in March, it was clear that, unlike his predecessor, he would be a unifying figure with a message to be embraced, not just by Catholics, but also by many people of all faiths and of no faith.

The pope said Monday that he would not judge gay priests who had goodness in their hearts.

One such priest who surely would have qualified was Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department of New York chaplain who died on 9/11 after he rushed to the collapsing Twin Towers to give spiritual comfort to firefighters and other rescue workers.

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s most important institutions, and what it says and does has implications far beyond its faithful, which is the reason why we are taking a moment to celebrate the pope’s most heartening comments.

Perhaps the most significant part of his words is that he actually uttered the word “gay,” a probable first for any pope.

The Vatican’s hostility toward gays under leaders like Pope Benedict XVI — who called homosexuals’ actions “evil” — does not end with one statement, but it represents important movement.

To be clear, there is no reason to think that the Vatican will be ready to fully accept gays this year or even this century, but Pope Francis’s remarks are a clear change in tone and yet another indication that he is part of the best of what the Church has to offer the world.

His emphasis on aiding the poor helps explain why he drew millions of Catholics during his trip to Brazil.

It was only a year ago that the Vatican was chastising the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for spending too much time worrying about the health and well-being of the poor. We can’t imagine a similar order coming down under Pope Francis.

The Church has much to overcome. There’s the pedophilia, the cover-ups, the flirtation of at least a few with anti-Semitism, and the treatment of gays.

But despite these instances of evil, there are also enormous acts of good done in the name of the Church — from the saint-like acts of people like Mother Teresa, to the quiet and countless acts of kindness by nuns, priests, educators and others who do it out of their love for Jesus Christ and his teachings.

The Church has so much power to help the world and Pope Francis showed again he wants to do just that.

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