In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis married a Chilean flight-attendant couple midflight from Santiago to Iquique on Thursday morning. The couple, who are legally married, had planned to wed almost eight years ago but were forced to postpone their plans when an enormous earthquake destroyed the church where they were to hold their service. They ended up with a civil service.
Upon learning they had not been married by the church, Francis offered to marry them on the plane. Francis blessed their rings and a cardinal drafted a handwritten wedding certificate.
It's a heartwarming story and another example of Francis spontaneously veering off-script to promote the church, its teachings, and his own central teaching of love. (Recently, Francis told mothers they should feel free to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel, adding that it is the "language of love.")
This impromptu wedding may ruffle some feathers within the church. Critics might note that Francis had no way to know whether the couple -- Paula Podest, 39, and Carlos Ciufardi, 41-- had completed the Pre-Cana marital instruction generally required of those who would marry in the Roman Catholic Church (or even that the two had been baptized and were actually Catholic). Others will object that the Code of Canon Law specifies that couples should marry in a proper church building.
Of course, the Pope could grant a special dispensation, but his actions are sure to displease those who already think he might not be taking marriage seriously enough.
But the Pontiff's actions are consonant with the Francis that people have come to know and love: He is spontaneous, motivated by joy, and a man of action as well as word. Having repeatedly stressed the importance of religious (as well as civil) marriage, Francis was setting an example he hopes others will follow.
The significance of this historic moment was not lost on the participants: "What he said to us is very important: 'This is the sacrament the world needs, the sacrament of marriage. Hopefully, this will motivate couples around the world to get married,' " said the groom.
But this is not merely a public relations exercise designed to promote the sacrament of marriage. Red-tape slicing in the service of compassion and love are the hallmarks of Francis' papacy. In practicing what he preaches and in pushing aside the formalities of church practice, Francis intends to give weight to devalued Christian virtues like charity and love.
In a world in which world leaders toss around cheap superlatives and crass exaggerations about these virtues, Francis wants to reclaim love from its emoji status and show it is actions that give words their substance. And in doing so he proves that he is serious, indeed.