Francis’ message surprises some, is a welcome change for others

While stories on questionable judgment and the conduct of priests in the archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul dominate the media, the positive message of Pope Francis is energizing many Catholic Church members.

Across the Metropolitan area, Pope Francis’ emphasis on having a welcoming, inclusive, forgiving and loving church is being received well by suburban Catholic Church leaders. They are welcoming the tone and surprising message of Pope Francis, while acknowledging church teachings probably will not change.

The Rev. Robert Schwartz, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina, said he’s excited over the pope’s comments published recently in the Catholic America magazine.

“I feel very positive with the direction he is setting. He is focused on love, building a community of love and welcoming everyone … (and) at the same time faithful to the church teachings.”

That emphasis on love may be his “trump card,” notes the Rev. Lauren Germann, pastor of St. Andrew’s church in Elk River.

Citing the pope’s emphasis on loving everyone regardless of their faults, Germann wrote in his parish bulletin: “Our love for others does not discriminate. There can be no exceptions to love. We love those who have had abortions, love those who use contraception, we love all people regardless of their sexual orientations.”

The pope’s concern for the homosexual person has drawn headlines because he said, “If a homosexual person is of goodwill and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”

In fact, Pope Francis wants the church to downplay the politicized social issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraceptives.

This is in sharp contrast to Archbishop John Nienstedt of the St. Paul-Minneapolis diocese, who campaigned against the gay marriage amendment last fall and even warned his priests not to deviate from that position. Nienstedt, in his only official comment on the pope’s message, said: “We are delighted and inspired by Pope Francis’ extraordinary efforts to reach out and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. We affirm our allegiance to the Holy Father and extend our hands in service to all who are in need without condition.”

The Rev. Bill Murtaugh, pastor of Pax Christi church in Eden Prairie, said he and his church members are enthused about Pope Francis’ opening the door to some new ways of looking at issues we thought were closed. The pope knows how to put a positive spin on what other popes might have said, and people are ready for that enthusiasm, Murtaugh said.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation that Jesus Christ has saved you,” he said.

The Rev. Tony Vanderloop, pastor of St. Henry’s church in Monticello noted, “The pope wants us to understand that the church can never operate as a kind of fortress where those on the inside feel safe and self sufficient; rather he says the church must go outside of itself by proclaiming the basic gospel message of Jesus saving love to those who are wounded.”

St. Thomas University theologian Massimo Faggioli, who was one of the English translators of the pope’s message, told a MinnPost reporter that it’s important for the church to take a more general view. Pope Francis sees the church as a field hospital where the first task is to welcome people and heal their wounds and not turn away if they’re not the patients you’d like to have.

Schwartz said that Pope Francis is a pastor who believes in starting with his people where they are at in their lives.

“Don’t start with theology,” he said. “Start with loving people where they are and share their lives … not just to teach them.”

Francis, who was an advocate for the poor when he was a bishop in Argentina, urges Catholics to help the poor, get out of their comfort zones and, with mercy, help those in need.

That theme is stressed by the Rev. Paul Jarvis, pastor of St. Joseph Community church in Rosemount.

“I think that, as much as we Catholic Christians have been speaking to the needs of the poor, Pope Francis is calling that we match the level of frequency in which Jesus was addressing the poor.

“Pope Francis is continually challenging those living in a bubble of comfort to break out of their isolation and reach out to God as well as to others in genuine and active assistance,” Jarvis said.

As for women’s role in the church, Faggioli observed, “There is not a big concession from Pope Francis to the liberal arguments about women in the church.”

The pope did address this: “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. … We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.”

Pope Francis also pleads for unity, even though there is much disagreement in the church, as he said: “We must walk united with our differences; there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

Conservative Catholics stress that the pope has not changed the teachings of the church.

Faggioli said: “Conservatives already know something is going on in Rome. They have noticed that there’s a new pope in town. It will be interesting to see how they lean in this adjustment in language.”

It will be interesting to see how all Catholics lean in adjusting not only to a new tone, but also to different message, no matter how you spin it.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers and a member of the ECM Editorial Board.

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