Can the church seize its moment in the spotlight?

Pope Francis arrives to Independence Mall in Philadelphia Sept. 26. In a talk there he spoke about immigration and religious freedom to an estimated crowd of 50,000. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

Our church has attracted many headlines in recent months. In May we had the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which studied the environment and oftentimes adverse impact of human activity on it. In September we welcomed Francis to the United States, with his addresses to Congress and to the United Nations, many prayer services and parades and visits to prisoners, the homeless, religious women and hundreds of thousands at Philadelphia’s World Meeting of Families. Millions watched and cheered these events. In October Francis presided over the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family. 

All of this is in addition to constant stories about Pope Francis going about his daily mission with simplicity and humanity. The man has broken down old barriers, opened new doors, given the papacy a refreshing new image. Some cringe. Others complain. Most applaud. 


“Laudato Si’” raised hackles in some quarters and in others became a rallying point. Who is the pope to be writing about science? What does he know? This contrasts, of course, with feelings of relief and support—thank heavens someone of the pope’s stature is speaking up. God made us stewards of his creation, not owners and exploiters. Twenty-eight protesters arrested last August as they tried to stop construction of a natural gas storage faciliity in Seneca Lake, N.Y., carried a huge mockup of the encyclical and proclaimed, “Pope Francis, we hear you.”

“The meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October also stirred up strong reactions. The pope’s openness, desire for discussion and drive to hear opposing viewpoints have revealed some rifts usually hidden from public view. The commentary was varied, sometimes contentious. Earlier this year, the commentators were asking, Who is the pope to talk about the environment? What does he know about the economy? Now the questions were, Is he trying to change marriage law? Is he trying to change doctrine? Others thought the pope was not going far enough; they asked whether the pope’s “revolution” is more than a series of inventive gestures. Most commentators, however, were ready for a thorough examination of what is essential and what might be longstanding but negotiable. 

It was Pope Francis’ six days in Washington, New York and Philadelphia that drew particularly heavy attention throughout the United States, almost all positive. His smile was contagious. People on the streets acted more friendly. Televisions in bars followed the papal parade through Central Park. TV news celebrities confessed their onetime religion. The Catholic Church was in. 

What can we do with this energy and interest? Discussions and disagreements will continue, though perhaps not with the intensity of the reactions to the synod. But what about the good will and optimism that the pope’s U.S. visit generated? Where can it take us? 

One area we all have to work on is civility in discourse and disagreement. Around the time of the synod, Pope Francis spoke much about listening, speaking and allowing others to speak. That meeting generated some heated talk, angry words, suspicion and discord. Bishops disagreed with each other in public. That is not bad if it is done with respect and desire for truth. Any one of us can reach out to someone we disagree with, sit down over a cup of coffee and find what core values we share. Not a bad start.

We can reach out to Catholics who have not found life in the church and have drifted away. How can we accompany them? Do they have something to say that we need to hear? Let them speak! Let us listen!

We cannot wait for church officials to move before we do. Bishops, pastors and parish staffs already have their hands full. Individuals and small groups within parishes need to take the initiative to find new projects or structures that will help build on what we have in order to proclaim the Gospel in new ways to our very new world. They must support their parishes as they also rightly challenge them.

One powerful image from the pope’s visit is a video on America’s website that shows some of the Jesuit high school students who traveled to Philadelphia to see the pope—about 400 of them from 40 schools. What more can our schools do? 

We must not fail to recognize and lift up what we do accomplish—in everyday parish life, of course, but also in a rich variety of ministries. At the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In, students from Jesuit schools raise awareness of important issues. Catholic Extension gives essential support to the church in rural America. 

And in the end, let us be thankful. For the challenges we face. For the faces and the words on our websites. For the students in our schools. For our leaders. For communities gathered in our local churches. For families that come home each day to love and support one another. For Pope Francis. And for all the good things we do. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Anne Chapman
3 years 4 months ago
The Pope's personal charisma alone will not draw many former Catholics back to the church. Many left because of teachings - and those teachings are not changing. The Pope's warmth and his smile and his efforts to focus on the spirit rather than the legalisms are all wonderful. But the church continues to treat women as "different" and unworthy of a sacrament, it continues to insist that male celibates have the right to define the roles of women in the church, limiting them at all levels to supporting the men, "allowing " women to run educational programs that include only those teachings defined exclusively by male celibates. The church continues to teach that modern contraception is intrinsically evil, rather than a gift from God, which is how most married couples see it. It may be opening the door a tiny crack in the divorced-remarried-communion issue, but still insists on annulments that proclaim that first marriages were not valid, that those who have remarried without annulments are committing adultery. It continues to deny gays the right to express their love physically with their partners. It has yet to clearly put into writing sanctions on bishops who enable priests to sexually abuse kids. It continues to let Law live a life of comfort in Rome, paid for by the people in the pews, does nothing about other bishops (such as Mahoney) rather than demonstrating that it understands the betrayal of youth,children and families showing by some kind of action that does not let these men get away scot-free, enjoying their comfortable retirements using the money of the people they betrayed. The best of parish programs will make no difference for those who left the church because of its teachings and/or governance, rather than just because of laziness on Sunday mornings.
3 years 4 months ago
Ms. Chapman, I would ask you to become acquainted with a textbook on medical embryology. I would suggest to you "Langman's Medical Embryology", 13th/most recent edition, but you can explore others. I would invite you to become familiar with the physiology of the unborn baby from conception forward. I have a very close friend, a Judge, who is an atheist, and he has finally conceded, after studying embryology, that the "viability" argument in abortion is flawed. The reason why he concluded this is because he became familiar with the intricate process of life once the sperm and the ovum fused. You write that "most married couples" see contraception as a gift. Actually, people see the pill as a ready excuse to not be responsible with sexual intercourse (married or otherwise), immediate gratification and not be concerned about the consequences. All actions in life have consequences, and to ignore them is reckless. If you were to understand the mechanism of action of Abortifacients and Oral Contraceptives, you would see how these either induce the expulsion of a fertilized egg (Abortifacients) or prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg (oral contraceptions) in the lining of the uterus (endometrium). Once the sperm fertilizes the ovum, life begins. If you don't want to believe my word for it, look it up in embryology. It is truly miraculous and outstanding. Preventing it from landing on the endometrial layer is evil, much like turning away a hungry child at your front door. Instead of taking up fault or offense with what the Church does or fails to do, and there are many many many from which to regurgitate, be a part of the solution instead of a part of the rock throwing. Where ever two people are gathered, conflicts will ensue. No gathering of people is perfect: no family, no hospital, no school, no church. The Church is a wonderful vehicle. I have my gripes to be sure but I have not left the Church, I am involved in spite of my local Ordinary (whom we anxiously await to retire quite soon!), and choose to see Christ in the dysfunction. If you can find a fully functional, perfect organization, please advise because we would all like to join. Until then, put down your rocks, get acquainted with embryology and the miracle of the physiology of life, and join us. There's plenty of room in the pew. Join us imperfect ones pax
Charles Erlinger
3 years 4 months ago
Speaking of seizing the moment: Jesuit colleges and universities should take up in a coherent and organized fashion the work outlined in paragraphs 139 and 140 of Laudato Si. This could well be an opportunity for Jesuit colleges and universities to leave their mark on the 21st century. Just as Catholic Action inspired so many students and young graduates in the 1940s and 1950s, so the current generation ought to be able to do as well, with the challenges outlined in the cited paragraphs. “139...We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. “140. Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom. Ongoing research should also give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. We take these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.”
Barry Fitzpatrick
3 years 4 months ago
I truly believe that Jesuits and the communities they serve have mirrored the approach of Pope Francis for a long time now. How about in the schools, especially the all boys high schools sponsored by the Jesuits, we put our best minds together to develop a formative curriculum to address issues that arise among these young men and are sometimes acted out later, perhaps in college. I am particularly thinking of the abuse of women on college campuses. We could do SO much if we worked together to see the the MEN FOR OTHERS we form do not contribute to this problem but rather assist in its solution.
Mike Evans
3 years 4 months ago
The first step is to proclaim the gospel using words when necessary. For that to happen, we need to triple at least the number of ordained clergy. To do that we must use the resources of married people and especially, women. Otherwise, we are just adjusting the length of our robes and chairs. Those who are young are now disaffected and even turned off by the church and its antics. The synod seems to have vaporized in front of our eyes - same old, same old. Lots of hot air, no solutions and no impetus going forward. Celibacy, the role of women, and mercy for the divorced and civilly remarried remain on the table in plain sight. The horrific decline of both clergy and religious leading our church is causing us to retract rather than expand. Parish and program closures are rampant in former strongholds of Catholic presence. The world seems to be more aware of human needs than we are.
Lisa Weber
3 years 4 months ago
It would be nice if some of the energy and interest could be used to develop the role of women in the church, but that requires fundamental change and more insightful theology than is currently being used.


The latest from america

Protracted and opaque processes only reinforce the fear that the church is still more invested in protecting itself than in protecting those who suffer from abuse, the editors write.
The EditorsMarch 21, 2019
Untold hours of dialogue, by both the underground and the registered church have left the church in a better position to navigate the challenges to come.
John A. WorthleyMarch 21, 2019
In the fourth and final episode of our mini-series with survivors, we are sharing the story of Michael Mack. Michael is the author of the one-man play: “Conversations with My Molester: A Journey of Faith.”
Deliver UsMarch 21, 2019
Gerry’s out this week, so instead of following our usual podcast format, we’re breaking out of the weekly news cycle to bring you an interview about a slow change that’s beginning for some really important people in the Vatican: Women.
Colleen DulleMarch 21, 2019