Pope Francis I: The Church’s Opportunity for Change

by Kathleen Goodwin

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Even those who are not intimately familiar with the New Testament (and I count myself in this category) have likely heard a paraphrasing of John 8:7 when Jesus encounters a group of men about to stone a woman to death for her crime of adultery. Jesus says to the mob, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” which causes the group to disperse and the woman to go free.

At Christmas Eve Mass this past week the presiding priest at my suburban Massachusetts parish repeated this passage to an uncomfortably packed and overdressed church, full of people he probably won't see again until Easter. While most were probably fretting over impending American Express bills rather than listening to his sermon, hopefully at least a few appreciated his reasoning. The priest's intention was not only to warn us against denouncing others without first reflecting upon our own transgressions but to illuminate a connection between this lesson of Christ and the contemporary teachings of Pope Francis, who is seeking to incorporate more people into the church rather than “stone” those who defy its rules.

Anyone who has glanced at a newspaper or magazine cover in the past few months has undoubtedly noticed the peculiarly quick elevation of Pope Francis I from curiosity to full blown celebrity. In a reporting world measured by aggregate clicks on online news content, one would assume that the antics of Miley Cyrus and Mayor Rob Ford, or even tech IPOs and insider trading scandals, would be what news sources are highlighting as they reflect on the past year. But while the aforementioned subjects have certainly had their time in the spotlight, I have also seen images of a cassock-clad 77 year-old Argentine smiling out from People.com, where the headline “12 Reasons Why Pope Francis Had the Best Year Ever” improbably appears on the same site as “Taylor Swift to Twerking Fails: The 10 Best Viral Videos of 2013”. Pope Francis's fame appears to have its origin almost entirely in an off-the-cuff rhetorical question in response to a journalist's query about gay priests in late July. The pope replied, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

I found his statement odd because growing up Catholic in a large Irish family from Boston, I have always thought the main responsibility of the church is, in effect, to judge. I did not necessarily think of this in terms of the anticipated Last Judgment, a day too hazily futuristic to genuinely stress over, but on a daily, or at least weekly basis, I believed an omniscient entity known as “the Church” was judging us Catholics. It was assessing us for our attendance or absence at Mass, our Lenten “sacrifices” (read: weight-loss plans) and our birth control pills. Not that this fear of judgment actually altered my behavior in any tangible way, it simply provided a vague, yet persistent, worry. Until very recently, I thought that the only point of attending mass each Sunday morning was to assuage some of the “Catholic guilt” that occupies an otherwise ineffectual spot in the back of my mind Monday through Saturday.

I recently moved to a new city for the first time and struggled with feelings of up-rootedness, unhappiness, and alienation. Like every recent college graduate in New York, I incorrectly assumed I must be the only one who felt insignificant in the most overwhelmingly self-important city on Earth. When I found myself googling the locations of Catholic parishes in my new neighborhood, I realized I must not be actively seeking to attend church solely because I feared the judgment of a nebulous “Church”. It also couldn't be my fear of the eventual wrath of God or, arguably worse, my mother's expectant interrogation at the beginning of her Sunday afternoon phone call: “How was church this morning?” Instead of begrudgingly going to Mass to suppress a feeling of guilt, I was unexpectedly looking forward to Sunday mornings because of the priceless gift of a full waking hour without pressure to check work email, text back friends, or plan for the future. There was also a sense of much-needed belonging in the straightforward act of giving and receiving wishes for peace from my fellow parish members each Sunday. When I chose a church and settled into a weekly routine, I felt crazy for having not always taken this opportunity to sit still without worry, to sing (tunelessly), and to reflect on the people and places I am grateful for. Rather coincidentally, as I found solace in the church Pope Francis was catapulted into the spotlight with his self-proclaimed lack of judgment and commitment to building an inclusive church. The idea of religion as a positive and productive force for fulfillment in my life and the lives of others, something I had read and heard about but never truly believed in all my twenty-three years, suddenly made sense. For the first time in my memory I was happy to be Catholic, in fact, I was proud.

It's not entirely surprising that Pope Francis's simple statement, in actuality not that radical or progressive, had a profound effect on the world's view of Catholicism and made his antiquated role significant again. The church, specifically the Vatican, has made a business of establishing a community defined by exclusion. As my priest back home proclaimed on Christmas Eve, many may think that the church aspires to be a “country club of saints” when in reality it should aim to be a “hospital for sinners” where everyone has a chance at rehabilitation and hope. Pope Francis has made history by acknowledging that a man is not worthy of judging other humans, regardless of his status and others' alleged sins. In a well-publicized interview with America magazine, when asked to describe himself the pope asserted, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech…”

It is suddenly clear that the church has failed itself and the world by building a house of judgment. Catholics, like myself, have grown up feeling judged by the community that is supposed to nurture and sustain us. Those both within and outside the 1.2 billion-strong global Catholic community feel the hostility and bitterly note the hypocrisy of an establishment that declares homosexuality, abortion, and divorce sins worthy of damnation, when it has committed its own real evils in past and recent times. In a rare divergence from the history of the papacy, Pope Francis is acting with the humility that Christ himself preached. I know that my generation in particular is listening to his words with rapt attention, and people everywhere are following closely. The church has a chance right now to benefit from the remarkable progress Pope Francis has achieved over the course of just a few months. I can only pray that the church will use the resources and legitimacy it has built up over millennia to pull itself out of backwardness by surrendering hatred and pride and taking this opportunity to thrive in a new world.

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