In another signal that Pope Francis’ Catholic Church is not your mother’s Catholic Church, the transformative pontiff married 20 couples at the Vatican on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and one who had a child out of wedlock.
Yes, you read that right. Couples who had lived together, couples who had sex before marriage, even one with a grown child were married in the Vatican by the pope himself.
All of those things remains a sin in the Catholic church. But the pope's message Sunday was not one of blame. In his homily before the exchange of vows, the pope stressed forgiveness for past sins.
"To spouses who 'have become impatient on the way' and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment," the pope said to the brides and grooms, "God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them."
So why is it important?
1. It's another signal that Pope Francis is changing the church to be more open and inclusive. Last July, Pope Francis suggested that that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation. The pope has also said the church is too focused on issues such as abortion, contraception and divorce. In an interview last year, the pope warned that "the church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules." The church's teaching "must be more simple, profound, radiant," he wrote. Sunday's wedding ceremony appears to be a practical application of that philosophy.
2. Being married by the pope is incredibly rare. Pope John Paul II was the last pope to publicly perform the rite of marriage, when he married eight couples in 2000. So rare is the event that one couple said that "when we discovered that it was happening, that it wasn't a dream -- well, it transformed us," The New York Times reported. The marriage of those, by the pope himself, who might have been shunned just a couple years ago, sends a powerful message not only to those couples but also to the rest of the world.
3. He wanted to stress the importance of marriage for all Catholics, whatever their situation. He also want to encourage local priests to follow his example and marry couples in similar situations. Pope Francis has long emphasized the importance of the family and marriage between a man and a woman and these topics will be discussed at a Vatican meeting of bishops later this year.
Marriage, the pope said, "is a symbol of life, real life: it is not fiction." It's also not fiction that the Catholic Church is changing -- and changing from the top down.