A few days ago I posted an article on my Facebook page about a speech Catholic Pope Francis gave, a speech the Washington Post described as “roughly the equivalent of a CEO sending his or her top executives off to Christmas vacation with a cleverly-worded list of everything they do wrong at the company.” The speech makes it clear that Pope Francis is not a Catholic insider in the traditional sense. He did not ascend to the Papal throne as many have by working their way through the hierarchy of the Vatican nestled in the City of Rome.
Over the past year Pope Francis has continued to be a free spirit. His public stances on homosexuality, female priests, and sexual molestation by priests within the Catholic Church, along with other issues, have been positively shocking, welcome, and, to some more traditional Catholics across the globe, confusing.
Francis has become very vocal at a time where the worldwide population of Catholics continues to decline. The Church has also had a difficult time filling the traditional priest role throughout the world, especially in the United States, thanks to the ongoing scandal that can’t be justified in any manner. The Catholic Church spent far too much time in denial and far too much money trying to hide the sexual crimes of priests and the harm they have done not only to the reputation of the Catholic Church, but to the sanctity of the role Catholicism plays in the lives of many millions of people, including my family. Or once played anyway.
I am a Christian. I do believe there is a God. I do believe in prayer. I do believe that our relationship with God is personal and private and should stay that way and that, if we wish to celebrate that relationship with others by attending a church service, that is our right. I also believe that if you want to keep your relationship with God more private, that is your right, too.
Back to Pope Francis.
The Pope delivers an annual message to the officials of Vatican City, cardinals, bishops and priests. Pope Francis obviously had some forethought this year and took to task the very hierarchy that has been mired in controversy, an unwillingness to change, and what has been a multi-generational decline in membership and participation. The Catholic Church is a massive bureaucracy, a global financial giant that, by some accounts, has run amuck and has little or no oversight or transparency.
The Catholic Church is in dire need of a great publicist if they are to survive in today’s culture and I believe they have found that in Francis.
My personal journey away from the Catholic Church was well-founded. I began my education in a Catholic school and that experience began what I would later recognize as my emancipation from organized religion. Like in many Italian-American families, I was literally forced to go to church by my parents. To this day my father is a devout Catholic and wouldn’t miss a weekly Mass for anything. His “deal” with God, he has shared with me, was that, if God delivered my him safely from the Korean War where he proudly served in the United States Army, he would be a sincere Christian, would dedicate his spiritual life to Catholicism, and would financially support the Church as best he could. He wanted his children to have that devotion as well, but that didn’t work out the way he hoped mostly because our parish priest was less than a kind and compassionate person. Although there was never even a hint that our priest ever made sexual advances to anyone in our parish, he was a nasty cuss. His temperament was more suited to a sweatshop than a parish. He walked with a cane for no reason that was obvious to me and often used it as weapon to discipline students who got out of hand by hitting them on the shin or some other sensitive body part.
Needless to say, finding a regular crew of altar boys was not his strong suit and I have no idea why he was allowed to stay as long as he did. He also had a German Shepherd as a pet that was not approachable by children. When he walked that dog, kids would cross the street because they were afraid of it. Father had no inclination to change the perception that that darned dog was as mean as he was. You can probably see why my personal journey away from my Catholic upbringing was not a hard decision for me to make at all, or for my siblings.
Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air and his observations and actions have been encouraging – very encouraging – to many. The tension and disparity between our faith & the teaching of the church and our reality & the difficult decisions that many families are forced to deal with have been ignored for far too long by many religions, particularly the Catholic Church. Even facing the realities of declining membership and financial difficulties around the globe, many Catholics, who now divorce commonly, or have LGBT children, or desperately want to be involved in their church service have been excluded by tradition and ritual. Some have even been banned for the reality of their lives. This has always seemed counterproductive to me on many levels, but not to the Catholic Church.
Most of us recognize that the times are changing. Pope Francis is leading that change with bravado, confidence, compassion, and charm. He is bringing some people back to the Church and while others, like myself, continue to look from the sidelines, he is forging ahead with an honesty and reality that I find both refreshing and encouraging. I know many of you do, too.
As we are on the eve of one of the most spiritual Christian holidays of the year, the Pope’s message is finding a larger audience and acceptance. I believe people have always had and always will have some need for a spiritual connection that is larger than they are. Those who have leaned on the Catholic Church for that nourishment but have felt almost left behind, in some respects, are finding hope in a man who is just being honest. It’s hard to criticize honesty, especially when that honesty is steeped in a deep and emotional tradition. There is hope and for most, hope is a good thing!
The message Pope Francis delivered to his circle was headline news and it should be. And, for many Catholics, this was also a Christmas miracle.