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A word of hope from a new pope

Do not adjust your set or tweak your Twitter feed.

Your glasses are clear and your hearing aid, if you have one, does not need to be recalibrated.

You heard the pope just fine.

Kind of a stunner, huh?

In case you missed it, Pope Francis rocked the Catholic world this week when he told a group of reporters on his plane: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

We can almost see the reporters turning to each other in disbelief, asking: “Excuse me, did His Holiness just say, ‘gay?’ ”

He did, indeed.

The impact of that simple utterance from this humble man cannot be overstated. For all the Masses that Francis will celebrate before millions of faithful Catholics during his tenure, he may never send a stronger message of inclusion than he did on that return plane trip from Brazil.

It made many people around the world want to stand up and cheer.

It was as if the church’s leader, suddenly, sent up a signal to let the world know that homosexuals are worthy of salvation, too. Others in his position have sent a very different message.

While the church actually doesn’t regard homosexuality as a sin (only gay sexual relations), you’d have a hard time reaching that conclusion from the comments of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. He called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil.”

Such has been the attitude of church leaders toward homosexuality over the decades. If they acknowledged it at all, it was to label it an “objective disorder,” which was the church’s way of saying that it was wrong anyway, even if it wasn’t a sin. More often, they seemed to ignore it and pretend it didn’t exist. And no pope ever used the word “gay” when referring to homosexuals.

So when Francis makes a comment like, “You can’t marginalize these people,” it’s a pretty strong sign that he is not your run-of-the-mill pope.

Make no mistake, Francis wasn’t holding open the door for the Catholic church down the street to start performing same-sex marriages, and he seemed to close the door completely to the idea of women ever becoming priests. But his remarks on gays – his mere use of the word – suggest that the church under Francis is willing to dip at least a toe into the realities of 21st-century life.

The pope’s statements couldn’t have come at a better time for the Vatican’s image: Damage from the sex-abuse scandals involving pedophile priests – and the bishops who covered up for them – has lingered; more recently, high-level Vatican bank officials have been accused of smuggling enormous sums of cash, reinforcing the suspicion of many in international financial circles that the bank has been a conduit for money laundering.

But at its core, the Catholic church is about much more than the Vatican; it’s about the good works done by nuns, priests and everyday parishioners who try to follow the teachings of Jesus.

In that regard, church Catechism teaches that gays “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

It appears that Catholics have, in Francis, a pope who now preaches what the church has long professed to practice and is willing to at least talk about some of the lifestyle and social issues that have previously been shunned.

Discussions about those topics among parishioners have been taking place for years, of course, but having that dialogue out in the open can only strengthen those parishes and the communities they serve.