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Worcester Catholics Embrace Pope Francis’s Controversial Interview

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


A wide-ranging and candid interview newly published in America: The National Catholic Review, has created controversy but found welcome in Worcester among Catholic leaders and academics.

Pope Francis raised some eyebrows recently when an interview with him, conducted over three separate visits to Rome, was published in America: The National Catholic Review. Among other things, the Catholic Church’s leader said that the Church should not focus so much on controversial issues like abortion, contraception, and homosexuality, and referred to himself as a sinner.

“I think Pope Francis is trying to give a more positive tone to the way the church speaks,” said Father Thomas Worcester, a Catholic priest and historian at the College of the Holy Cross. “I think he’s trying to move the church in the direction it should go in.”

Father Worcester emphasized that the Pope’s words did not reflect any change in doctrine, rather a shift in focus for the church. He is “not saying he approves,” Father Worcester said.

“While many of the recent headlines suggest a dramatic dogmatic upheaval in the Catholic Church, I think it is important to see his remarks more naturally in context,” said Andrew McCarthy, assistant professor of Theology and Director of Pastoral Ministry Programs at Anna Maria College. “He describes himself as a son of the Church when it comes to doctrine, but he is clearly identifying the need to shift emphasis to a more missionary approach in which the first message is that God so dearly desires to embrace each of us in an eternal embrace of love. “

“It’s not abandoning anything we believe,” said Raymond Delisle of the Diocese of Worcester. “What it felt like to me – it was almost like I was on a retreat with him. There’s always change in the sense of growth – a constant sense of conversion as we get deeper and deeper in our faith.”

Pope Francis's return to compassion

For both Father Worcester and Mr. Delisle, Pope Francis’s words reflect a public shift back to the center of the church’s teaching – compassion; and mark an increased public focus on the suffering, marginalized, and poor. He chose the name Francis in reference to Saint Francis of Assisi who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor.

“A lot of people have said that Francis seems to be very pastoral, meeting them where they are,” Father Worcester said.

The Pope's embrace of youth and modern culture has attracted worldwide attention, as in this selfie Tweeted by Fabio M. Ragona.

He has even noted a marked rise in interest in the history course he teaches on the papacy. The course quickly filled, and several students did not get in. Others have been reaching out while abroad, hoping to snag a spot in the course for next semester.

Putting "real teeth" in spreading the Gospel

“Pope Benedict made a call for renewed effort to spread the good news and hope of the Gospel message. In spite of good faith efforts it seems that this went only so far," said McCarthy. “It now appears that Pope Francis is making inroads at giving this effort some real teeth. He is placing a necessary emphasis on God’s first desire to gather people into a compassionate, healing, and life-giving union.”

“I think what we’re experiencing is something that we’re not used to,” said Delisle. “The pope is speaking off the cuff, without being so guarded. He’s been much more approachable. He’s been much more of a pastor in the respect.”

Delisle referred to the comforting imagery the pope used in his interview. “I dream of a church that is a mother and a shepardess,” Pope Francis said. Those words are far from the fire and brimstone rhetoric with which the church is often stamped.

“His style is different,” said Delisle. “At times it’s what really attracted people to Pope John 23rd, that he could relate to the average person.”

The new Pope: selfies, Fiats + Twitter

Pope Francis who has made headlines lately for taking “selfies” with young Catholics at World Youth Day, and for refusing to give up his 1984 Renault 4 has certainly made quite a splash with his style. On a recent trip to Brazil he opted to ride in a Fiat rather than the ostentatious Pope-mobile, and insists on carrying his own luggage onto the Vatican’s version of Air Force One. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pontifex.

“He’s not going to change everything overnight,” said Father Worcester. “He’s only has six months, and I expect there will be a lot more to come.”

The positive press generated by Pope Francis’s interview is welcome by the church, which has been no stranger to negative press and public perception in recent years. In July, St. Bernadette’s Parish in Worcester was criticized for allegedly cancelling its institutional membership at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) after the museum invited same sex couples to marry there following the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act by the Supreme Court.

Anna Maria College also made headlines when it revoked its invitation to Victoria Reggie Kennedy to be commencement speaker because of her left-leaning stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

“Among theologians there is always great excitement about the spirit of renewal flowing into the Church, but this is also countered by past experience of the bureaucratic impediments that seem to staunch our response to the Spirit as much as they temper unreasonable extremes in theological ideologies,” said McCarthy.

“I think many Catholics grow in their comfort with orthodoxy, a right belief, when they can see it clearly paired with orthopraxy, a right way of living in the world. It is my hope that the pope’s example will fuel a comprehensive renewal of the intellectual, spiritual, and active life of the Church.”


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