Reconciled: Pope Francis’ message of love and hope extends a welcome back to the church.

This article was originally published in the Marquette University Magazine.

My heart is racing. I hear the trumpets play Hail to the Chief when the president and first lady appear outside the White House. They walk to the circular driveway that is iconic American imagery and stand. The silence is heavy with anticipation — when suddenly the trumpets blare again and a motorcade flying the Vatican flag pulls up. His Holiness Pope Francis has arrived.

I ask myself: “Aaron, how did you get here?” and memories of August 13 come to mind.

I had been blogging about my journey to reconcile my faith and life as an openly gay man. My writing and research led me to discover that Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Washington, D.C.

I wrote to the White House seeking an invitation to the welcoming ceremony.

I received the phone call on August 13 that changed everything. At first I thought the caller was one of my friends punking me. When I realized I was really speaking to a representative from the White House who was extending President Obama’s invitation to me and one guest to attend the arrival ceremony honoring the pope, you can imagine my answer.

In the weeks that followed my story went viral. I received countless messages, tweets, and calls from reporters at ABC, NBC, Fox, the AP, CNN, The Huffington Post and others requesting interviews.

To this day I’m humbled and shocked by it. I never thought people would want to learn about me, a gay Catholic, and my ticket to the White House.

Now the day is finally here and I am more excited than I remember being about any other event in my life.

“What a beautiful day the Lord has made,” says President Barack Obama, bringing my attention back to this moment. “Holy Father, on behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House.”

Standing with me on the south lawn are nearly 15,000 people, the largest gathering in history on this site. President Obama’s words touch on why many of us are here. This gathering, the president says, “ … reflects the way that your message of love and hope has inspired so many people across our nation and around the world.”

It was Pope Francis’ message of love and hope that welcomed me back to the church. As a gay Catholic I had struggled for many years. My faith suffered from fear, doubt and misunderstanding. Misconception that the Catholic Church was unwelcoming and unforgiving clouded my judgment.

In 2013 Pope Francis cleared the air for me. It was then when His Holiness was meeting with reporters and the topic of homo- sexuality came up in a question. With a more compassionate tone than that of his predecessors, he responded:

“If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

That was a defining moment for me. After nearly 18 years of Catholic education, it was the first time I heard someone of authority in the Catholic Church truly address homosexuality.

In the two years since then Pope Francis has continued to express love, hope and compassion for all people, including the LGBT community. He has proven, in a multitude of ways, that he is the pope we, the Catholic Church, needed. He is the one we’d been waiting for.

So today from my vantage point on the south lawn, seeing His Holiness and the president who supports the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage means the world to me. They represent the two governing bodies that have supported who I am as a person.

I struggle not to get emotional as Pope Francis speaks to my heart: “Mr. President, together with their fellow citizens, American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. … The efforts which were recently made to mend broken relationships and to open new doors to cooperation within our human family represent positive steps along the path of reconciliation, justice and freedom.”

I close my eyes and take in the moment. I hear Pope Francis — not changing the teachings of the Catholic Church, but changing the hearts and minds of those who follow.

His Holiness is the pope of inclusion, and that’s enough for me.