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A pope who reminds us of the church we know

The historian Molly Worthen has a worthwhile essay about (what else) Pope Francis in the American Prospect, which you should read now or save for a day when you're not too poped out. Worthen, the author of the new book Apostles of Reason (and a friend from my undergraduate days), offers a quick and perceptive summary of the history of American attitudes toward the pope. But it's her explanation for the "Francis Effect" that I found most insightful. It gets at a truth I don't think I've seen articulated anywhere else.

Liberal and conservative Catholics have "found cause for complaint" with Francis's priorities, she notes, and yet:

Despite this grumbling, the vast majority of American Catholics (88 percent, as of December) approve of Francis. The reason is not because they believe he will settle questions that have troubled the church for generations. Rather, his example—his decision to wash the feet not of fellow priests but of juvenile inmates on Holy Thursday; his invitation to homeless men to join him on his birthday—reminds many Catholics of what the church means to them on a daily basis and what they hope it means to the world.

Francis, as Worthen writes, has "reframed" the church's "resistance to secular Western pluralism," moving decisively away from the culture-war approach that for decades has driven the Catholic hierarchy and helped build bridges with non-Catholic Christians in the United States while alienating many ordinary Catholics. Professional culture warriors -- people on both sides who have staked their reputations on standing in strong opposition to each other -- have been left struggling to regain their footing. Thus the spectacle of George Weigel on the one hand and Patricia Miller on the other, both in total agreement that whatever fascinates people about Pope Francis is irrelevant, and everything important is the same as it ever was.

I don't think most of the "people in the pews" who are so excited about Francis really need to be told that big, dramatic changes are hardly imminent when it comes to married priests, women's ordination, birth control, and so forth. We're not new on earth. But I do think most of us had gotten used to the idea that the pope was somehow not of this earth, and so it's a shock, a delightful one, to see a man we seem to recognize in the papal chair. I like the way Worthen puts it: he "reminds" us of the church we know; he seems to live in it with us. Just a couple months into his papacy, he spoke in a homily about the need to be "facilitators of the faith of the people," instead of "controllers of the faith." And to illustrate his point, he gave some examples of people who might come to a parish looking to be married, or to have a baby baptized, only to be discouraged by their encounter with an officious or unwelcoming parish secretary. I was astonished -- the pope knows about something as real-world and basic as parish secretaries! He even knows about how they kind of run things, and how their dispositions are a major asset or obstacle to successful ministry. Why should that be so surprising? And yet it is -- and I think maintaining that footing in Catholicism-as-it-is-lived has everything to do with Francis's decisions to style himself as "bishop of Rome" and to decline to live in the papal apartments, at a decorous remove from the rest of us.

Francis does remind me of favorite pastors and priests and other church ministers I've known, and of so many of the things that shape my life of faith. And he reminds people of what Nicholas Kristof once rather reductively called "the other Catholic Church" -- and in doing so illustrates the error in looking at the church that way. That's why I think there's so much enthusiasm for Francis, and so much hope that his papacy is the beginning of a new day in the church -- hope that may not be tied to specific reforms, but is no less substantial for that. I see Francis gently marginalizing those who have worked hard to define Catholicism in a way that pushes many believers to the margins. And it turns out a lot of Catholics would really prefer that there be just the one church.

"American Catholics themselves," Worthen writes, "often seem impatient to pronounce verdicts on the pope rather than to alter their beliefs or conduct on the basis of his counsel." Guilty. And when the pope seems like a distant oracle, it's easy to compartmentalize. Francis, on the other hand, issues challenges that are hard to ignore. If he represents what most of us love about the church, and what we "hope it means to the wider world," he also reminds us in an especially vivid way that we're the ones who are responsible for making the church the world sees look the way it's supposed to look.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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The  popes homily about the" simple" woman who waited after mass to be blessed by all the priests because she felt the Spirits' inspired desire to feel connected with Christ,  made me  wonder if any woman would feel this need to be blessed by a woman priest.Would the connection  of Christ with a priest be felt  if the priest were a woman?I wonder. I'm not sure it would; my hunch is it would not but that's unchartered water, so i guess i could be wrong.A male co worker, once told me that he felt there was a"holy" power to priests; he just felt it, in their presence ,he told me. He was as straight [sexually] as an arrow, yet he also, a "simple" catholic made that connection.                                                               The pope is spot on regarding the secretary gate keeper "scandal".[I call that a  scandal because people are being kept away instead of being brought into the fold which is our mission as christians]. The world is run by these "little" secretary gate keeper types so keenly doing their job, making people jump through their hoops.It's bad enough in the secular world but when it applies to the church it IS a scandal.

Rose-Ellen, does your comment have anything to do with the post? Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I don't see even a remote connection.

Mollie, I think the point you are making in the post is right on target. Francis is not some sort of "one-off" -- he speaks out of the context of the Second Vatican Council, and reflects the gospel-based vision we see in our best parish experiences and pastoral leaders.

The surprise of this is striking. Wow, we didn't expect THIS. (So sad, isn't it?) It reminds me of that short-lived (because crusaded against by lobby groups) television program, "Nothing Sacred." I couldn't believe it was actually a television show about a Catholic parish I could recognize! It wasn't some Hollywood fall-back on stereotypes from "The Bells of St. Mary's" but an actual, real life contemporary parish -- with a soup kitchen, and a nun not in habit, and priests who wrestled with their calling, and sacraments that were experienced in poignant ways by people in life situations one could readily imagine. Too bad they took it off the air. 

They can't take Pope Francis off the air, though. He does remind me of the church I know. To some extent, however, he is formed by an experience I don't know so well... the experience of the church in Latin America. That keeps me from domesticating him or making too-hasty assumptions, even as I feel drawn in and encouraged by what I see of him.


Rita, I was responding to the  highlighted in blue  link " "   he spoke in a homily".

Does he yet remind us of the Church we hope for?

I'm more convinced than ever that Papa Francesco sees himself more as a transitional pope, bridging the gap from the restoration regime of JP2 & B16 and the hoped-for reform and renewal regime that Francesco that God willing will succeed him.

It will interesting to hear what will be Francesco's remarks regarding the up-coming canonizations of his predecessors J23 & JP2.  

Who will Francesco most affiliate his own papacy?  Will Francesco poltically tack backwards and try to make peace with the hapless always-wrong, traditionally ideological restoration of his Polish and German brothers of fond memory?  

Or will Francesco fully embrace the reform and renewal of John's aggiornamento?

Ahhhhhh! Morning springtime along the Tiber ...............! 


It seems to me that relying on any priest's personal demeanor or physical qualities to transmit a feeling of blessedness misses the whole point of the story. Jesus was a white, semitic, Aramaic-speaking single man in his early thirties or younger. None of those qualities made him blessed, including his gender.

There may be valid reasons for an all-male, celibate priesthood. Making a person who genuinely feels called by the Spirit feel comfortable with their act of blessing her is NOT one of them. Ask anyone who has felt the Holy Spirit's presence in a woman -- Mother Theresa for instance -- whether gender was a deciding factor.

I get what you're saying Dorothy.I was definatly NOT referring to any personal demeanor or physical qualities.That was my point;that this effect transcended that.It is not about any particular priest ,though it could include that too for individuals.That's why the woman wanted to be blessed by all the priests.And yes, one can feel that the Holy Spirit is present in a male or female lay person.I've definarly experienced that ,even in non christians."The Spirit blows where it wills".The point of the story ,i thought, was that the humble simple people with their  intuitive needs such as wanting to connect with a priest, though it might appear superstitous, is a manifestation of  peoples desire for  and recognition of the concrete  presence of God in the world.It's not the only expression , anything that touches people[subliminaly] can do that; music, art, nature and other lay people.But throughout human history the priest has also, for ordinary people, been experienced as such a manifestation.The pope recognizes that phenomena; the reality of the need emanating from ordinary  lay people to connect with a perceived  physical expression of the divine  and the reality of the[subjective perception and  actual/objective] supernatural imprint of the sacrament of ordination.That's my take.  

I write from Australia. Australians in general don't like authority, particularly secular auhtority. The history of the catholic church in Australia has been characterised by, broadly speaking, it being treated as made up of second class citizens: for the first 150 years Irish migrant labour: for the past 60 years post World War 2 many European catholic migrants. Paradoxically authoritarian leadership by catholic clerics, especially in the struggle to maintain a catholic education system, led to catholics accepting this clearical authoritarianism because it fought for them against the authoritarian secularists and anti-catholics. This struggle between the church and the state has reached a point where Australia has a national Prime Minister who is a Jesuit-educated conservative (some say reactionary) and a leader of the Opposition who is a Jesuit-educated democratic socialist.

This dichotomy is reflected in the catholic church in Australia. There are those who revelled in the conservatism of JP2 and Benedict16 and those who loved John23 and now Pope Francis. The problem is that only 12% of those people who identify themselves as Roman Catholics practise their religion.

A much more serious sociological study is required before one can talk about the Francis effect. It works both ways. Jesuit education of itself cannot predict what kind of christian practice will emerge.

Compared to his predecessors Francis is a breath of fresh air but he is not the wind of change John 23 hoped for with Aggiornamento. Give him good health and good men and women around him and gradually the Ignatian way of find God in all things will permeate the Curia, the Vatican, Italy, Europe, the Rest of the World.

Rose-Ellen, I personally have never felt any desire to be blessed by a priest.  I do not see any priest (including the pope), male or female,as a physical expression of the divine, at least not in any way that is different than seeing God in every person. For a number of reasons, I have been sitting out of the Roman Catholic church for a few years, watching to see if I can return someday in "good" conscience. So I now normally go to an Episcopal church, one that has a woman priest as well as a male priest, in a diiocese led by a bishop who is a woman - quite a Francis-like bishop, actually. She's quite remarkable.  But, I don't see any priest of any church as being "superior" or a physical expression of the divine because of being ordained.  That seems in a way to be setting up a false idol. The sacrament of ordination no more imparts a unique physical manifestation of the divine than does the sacrament of marriage.  They are simply two possible vocations that are recognized as "sacraments".  Unfortunately neither the vocation of consecrated women religious nor that of unmarried non-religious are given the recognition and dignity they too deserve - no "sacraments" recognizing their calls.

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