PARIS — There was delight, curiosity and concern at Roman Catholic churches this weekend as the impact of a remarkably frank interview Pope Francis gave to Jesuit journals began to sink in with the faithful around the world.
In the interview posted online on Thursday by 16 Jesuit journals, Francis, 76, said the Church must shake off an obsession with abortion, contraception and homosexuality and focus on healing those who felt “wounded” by the Church.
In many congregations, priests and parishioners welcomed the wide-ranging interview as a breath of fresh air from a man talking more like a gentle local pastor than the distant theologian or statesman pontiffs of recent decades.
Some were unsure, saying they still had to read the full text to see where Francis might take the 2,000-year-old Church, while conservative churchgoers in Africa, the faith’s fastest-growing region, were quick to condemn the new openness to homosexuals applauded in other parts of the world.
Many ordinary priests rejoiced that the new pope was not afraid to address the thorny moral issues they meet in their daily work and advise them to show love and mercy to sinners instead of condemning them.
“I was thrilled to read it,” said Fr Lee Smith, 78, a retired Brooklyn priest living in Jupiter, Florida. “How can you not want to go out and preach this right now?”
An enthusiastic middle-aged woman in Warsaw who declined to give her name called Francis’s message “the Gospel with the word ‘compassion’ tattooed on the forehead … This is a revolution, and the Church is implementing it.”
Although it made global headlines when published, many preachers mentioned the interview briefly or not at all in the weekend’s sermons, perhaps because it is so new or could herald fresh rifts and wrangling about what the world’s largest church should say and do.
Church as field hospital
In the interview Francis described the Church as “a field hospital after battle”, a signal that he wants to go beyond so-called culture war disputes over sexual morality to reach out to those in need with the love and mercy Jesus displayed in the Gospels.
Francis has shown this new personal approach in gestures and comments during the first six months of his papacy, but spelling it out in a 12,000-word text that he approved before publication meant the change could not be dismissed as just style.
“This is more important than an encyclical,” said Massimo Faggioli, 42, a theologian at St Thomas University in Minnesota, referring to the most authoritative papal teaching documents.
“How many people read encyclicals, and how many read interviews?” asked Faggioli.
The message from the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, went down very well at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro neighbourhood.
“I’m just so excited to have a pope who’s interested in the people and not just the doctrine,” parishioner David Johnson said.
“Who doesn’t want to hear about God’s love as opposed to ‘You shouldn’t do that’?” asked pastor Fr Brian Costello.
In Catholicism’s European heartland, where the percentage of baptised Catholics regularly attending church has slumped to single figures in recent decades, Francis’s focus on helping people has also struck a welcome chord.
“The Church in Europe or North America has served the establishment more, and contact to the grass roots got weaker and weaker,” said Fr Klaus Eibl, 69, at St Gertrude’s in Vienna. “At least hopes have been raised.”
“The Church has taken a hammering here in recent years,” said Dublin civil servant Gerry O’Sullivan, 57, referring to the clerical sexual abuse crises rocking Ireland. “He has ground to make up … I think (he) might recover some of that ground.”
In Latin America, where many Catholics have left to join the fast-growing evangelical Protestant churches, many churchgoers backed the new tone at the Vatican.
“The pope is sending a message of tolerance and maturity,” said housewife Alicia Farsetti, 62, during a visit to what was Bergoglio’s cathedral when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“If we don’t accept gays, if we don’t accept liberal women, we’re closing the door to people who really need the love, faith and peace that you get when you go to church,” said publicist Elizabhet Valdez, 35, outside Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Fr Marcilio Caetano do Nascimento, a parish priest in Rio de Janeiro, appreciated the pope’s forgiveness for women who have had an abortion. “What are we supposed to do — follow up by hurting them ourselves with harsh words?” he asked.
Questions and quiet
But while the general message of Christian mercy chimes with the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, there’s also uncertainty about whether this means a radical shift in the rules.
“Forgiveness is important,” said Norman Subido, 30, a local official in the Philippine capital Manila. “But the Church should clarify up to what extent we should extend our compassion, because it may be abused.”
At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, where the pastor urged the faithful at Saturday evening Mass to read the whole interview online, parishioner Joan Maas described herself as “borderline” about Francis.
“I’m not sure that I like everything he says, but I’m OK with most of it,” she said.
One large group keeping a mostly tactful silence now are the conservative priests and lay people who strongly backed the return to traditional Catholicism led by popes John Paul and Benedict after the modernising reforms of the 1960s.
“This is going to create a huge backlash from traditional Catholic advocacy groups, but I’m sure God will give the pope the strength and courage to stay the course,” said Thomas Thottungal, 61, a software copywriter, outside his church in Thiruvananthapuram in southern India’s Kerala state.
Critics can hardly fire away at a pope who seems personally popular and holy, makes no doctrinal changes and openly displays an age-old Catholic piety with his devotion to the Blessed Virgin and warnings against the temptations of the Devil.
Fr Aidan Troy, the Irish pastor of St Joseph’s Church in Paris, found his two Sunday sermons welcoming the interview prompted “amazing positive comments and a few (parishioners) with tears of joy”.
But he added: “I also had a phone call from a parishioner who was barely able to speak for anger and shock at the tone of the pope’s interview.”
In a nearby parish, a French priest delighted with the interview heard conservative colleagues mocking the pope when he entered the rectory kitchen for breakfast on Friday morning. “As soon as they saw me, they stopped talking,” he recounted.
Traditional Catholic commentators in the polarised U.S. church have opted to lash out at the secular media for focusing on Francis’s comments about abortion and gays rather than highlighting the fact he was not changing Church doctrines.
One blogger, Fr John Zuhlsdorf, wrote that biased media were creating a “virtual Francis” that misrepresented him. Blogger Jimmy Akin suggested his original words in Italian may have been changed in translation, but gave no examples to support this.
“Until six months ago, the conservative side felt invulnerable, completely safe,” said theologian Faggioli. “Now they understand the whole picture has changed.”
One region where the faithful are as fearless as Francis in speaking out is Africa, a continent of relatively new converts where firm belief in Biblical authority — especially on gay sex — prompts them to openly reject that part of his message.
“His words are a message from the Devil, and they will force people to leave the Catholic Church,” said Seraphine Yalikako, a disabled woman in the choir at St Joseph’s in Kinshasa.
“He is the head of the Church, but his message is contrary to the Catholic doctrine. It is not a message I can take on board … Homosexuality is a mortal sin,” she said.
In Abidjan, St John the Baptist Church parishioner Evelyne Kanga predicted revolt in the pews or an exodus to rival evangelical churches if the Church followed Francis on the issue.
“If we don’t condemn homosexuality, then we’re accepting homosexual priests, and I can never accept that. I’m not going to hear Mass from a homosexual priest,” she insisted.
“The pope should not advocate for making homosexuality normal. I would walk out of the church if I ever hear my priest say it,” said Ahimbisibwe Nkuba, a 42-year-old Kampala mason.
African priests aimed to balance papal statements and popular feelings. “He’s not saying the Church is going to change its stance on homosexuality or abortion, but just help these people,” said Fr Raymond Onoliefo at his church outside Lagos.
“Even armed robbers, the Church loves and wants to change them. That’s how I read what the pope says.”