Catholic Church · Evangelism

Hope – and fear – in taking the Pope at his word

I spent Saturday morning with a group of Catholic women that meets regularly to discuss matters of faith. The assigned reading was a 1926 G. K. Chesterton piece on why he was Catholic. It was a fair choice since many in the group have been asking themselves that question for the past few years. But in light of Pope Francis’ big-hearted interview, we basically tossed Chesterton and spent our time talking about the interview. A few themes emerged and thus, this Report from People of the Pew. Clergy, if you’re reading, I beg you pay attention.

  • Women who have felt marginalized in their local parishes or dioceses are feeling profound hope with +Francis’ words: “It is necessary to widen the space for more incisive feminine presence in the church.” These women do not expect ordination, but they sense that, with the pope’s very direct challenge to clergy, women may finally have a true voice at the table.
  • Everyone wondered why so many clerics (and lay people) were rushing to “explain away” what the pope said. Why are people afraid to take +Francis at his word? Is it because certain Catholics think that their fellow (less-than) Catholics will be confused? What, pray tell, would these confused sheep do with these statements?
  1. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent.”
  2. “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, he will find nothing.”
  3. “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

If the Church Ladies of Saturday are any example, this is what they’ll do with those statements: Give their faith a second look, give their parishes a second chance, and hold on to the hope +Francis has planted in them. Maybe everyone involved in the brouhaha  regarding the pope sowing confusion should spend a little time with the other guy who challenged nit-pickers. Just sayin’.

  • Speaking of hope: Overall, the room was awash in it. Not because these women think the Pope is liberal (he’s just Catholic from what I can tell), but because they feel love emanating from Rome. Prior popes spoke about love and wrote large treatises on it, but Francis makes you feel love. And as any parent knows, it doesn’t matter how often you tell your teenager you love him, if he senses your disappointment, your words are empty. (Not only that, he’s not going to listen to anything else you have to say, no matter how profound.)
  • But one hesitation emerged. Would the pope’s example and words trickle down to parishes? Stories were exchanged of clergy dismissing lay concerns or suggestions, treating laity as uneducated or inconsequential (unless a particular talent was needed at a particular time), or being so poorly schooled in human relations they didn’t even understand how they’d hurt people.

Thus, I am here to say it again to every priest out there: This Pope Francis moment, this clear-as-a-bell call from Rome, is a moment of truth. There is a chance that next Sunday, or the next or perhaps more likely at Christmas or Easter, people who had given up on the Catholic Church and the faith are going to walk through your parish doors. They are going to be looking for what Pope Francis has talked about. They want to see if you’re offering it.

If the person is new to your parish, it will be easy. Be friendly, be open, give a good homily, personally serve him or her the Eighth Sacrament of coffee and donuts after Mass. What will be harder is noticing who no longer comes to your parish and figuring out if you might be part of the reason they left. And then, going out and making things right.

If you don’t want to do it for Jesus or the pope, can I ask that you do it for me? Because frankly, I am worn out trying to keep Catholics from leaving because of a priest. I’m running out of excuses. Just this summer, I’ve had to say the following to people who consider themselves “former Catholics”:

  • “Well, yes, that priest was a jerk, but you can’t judge the whole Church on just one (Or two. Or three.) Come try my parish.”
  • “He said what in confession? Oh my! I’m so sorry. That isn’t how most priests handle that. Let me set you up with someone else.”
  • “Yes, you’re right. Sometimes parishes lack dynamics (or a nursery, or youth group, or decent music or …), but you know, the laity must step up and provide these things ourselves.”

Now, I don’t mind doing my part, and trust me, I do do my part. I can’t remember not volunteering at my parish, beginning in 8th grade when I started playing guitar at my the Catholic school I attended and going all the way through babysitting in the parish nursery, serving as youth minister, teaching Confirmation classes, helping lead music at Christmas midnight masses that actually started at midnight, being a Eucharistic Minister and lector, cooking pasta for 100 people, and putting in my time on the cleaning and decorating committees. And, no matter how poor my husband were in our first years of marriage, we gave money to our local parish and Catholic Charities. I have a “clergy” section in my cell phone, and I could get any number of priests and a couple bishops to vouch for the fact that I defend the Church, follow the Church, correct poor media reporting on the Church, and try desperately to bring people into the Church.

But I refuse to sit silently while people leave when I know part of the reason some of them are leaving. At least not after Pope Francis’ interview. It is like he’s given us all permission to call a spade a spade and say, “This should change.” So I’m saying it.

In my many years of listening to people who’ve “given up” on the Church, I’ve figured out that seven out of 10 have abandoned their faith practice because of something a priest has said or done. You didn’t return a phone call (or many phone calls). You played favorites. You came down hard when you could have come down soft (or simply respected parish culture and left well enough alone). You were arrogant when a parishioner offered a suggestion. When someone broke down in the confessional about a personal issue, you said something to the effect of, “Well, the confessional isn’t counseling …”.

I have heard all of the above not once or twice, but many times, from many people in four different states over the past 30 years, so I’d say I have enough of a sample to proclaim: We’ve got a problem, Father. The People of the Pew aren’t asking for perfection from our priests, and God knows that the people who’ve left know you aren’t perfect. But a little humility might lead to the healing Pope Francis calls for:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful … Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.”

There was a guest priest at the parish I attended this morning. Referring to the Gospel, he said we will all be asked by God, “How much do (we) care, and for whom?” He said that every day at our doorsteps, beggars lie, loud or mute, and they aren’t asking for food or money, but something much more difficult to give. They are asking to be seen. They are asking for time, compassion, understanding.  And, perhaps, in my humble but incisive feminine opinion, some of these beggars are those who’ve left the Church and need to hear the following to bring them back:



2 thoughts on “Hope – and fear – in taking the Pope at his word

  1. I hope priests do read this and take it seriously. It’s exactly right — and I’m one of those who got fed up and left. For me it wasn’t any one thing; I can put up with a lot of mistakes from priests. It was the general atmosphere of hopeless, sterile, vacuous, PR-speak that seems to pervade every Catholic parish — the crushing sense that nothing anyone says actually means anything — as well as seeing my love for JPII shredded by his protection of Maciel. And … well, a million other things. I’m sure you can imagine.

    Now I’m hopeful again, solely and simply because of Pope Francis. But my local parish doesn’t seem to have heard of Pope Francis yet. And this diocese seems to think opposition to abortion is the only thing that makes us Catholic.

    The thing I do wonder about, though, when I read writing like this: do the good parishes you refer to actually exist? I’ve never seen one.

    1. Hi, Frank: Yes these parishes do exist. Priests who trust parishioners and parishioners who step up to fill the gaps. What is so hard to understand is how clergy really do not seem to get how much trust was lost in them as a group due to the circling the wagons during the sex crisis. Also, the average Catholic is not longer uneducated. In one of the parishes I attended for many years, 1/2 the congregation had more education (at least higher degrees) than the priests. You can’t talk down to people like that. Thanks so much for writing and I hope you continue reading.

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