ONE YEAR LATER: How Have Catholics Responded to Pope Francis?

March 12, 2014

ONE YEAR LATER is an afternoon series focusing on the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy. Bondings 2.0 will be running this series all week.  The anniversary of his election is Thursday, March 13th.

Pope Francis’ remarkable impact on the Catholic Church and the world has been described as “the Francis effect” by media reports and academic panels. A year into this papacy, many are wondering what effect Pope Francis has actually had on people and what this “effect” will mean in practical terms for the life of the Church.

Dan Burke of CNN wrote a lengthy piece titled “How to really measure the ‘Francis effect” exploring these very questions in light of the fact the pope’s made no doctrinal reforms, nor has church attendance grown. Yet, Burke contends there are more ways to measure influence than mass attendance and conversions. Focusing in on Boston’s Catholic population, the author highlights personal stories to shed light on Pope Francis’ impact. He writes of Brian Stevens, a gay Catholic man who formerly worked for the US bishops before quitting when opposition to marriage equality became the conference’s focus:

“Stevens stayed active in charity circles and has been watching Pope Francis closely. He says he’s noticed a change of tone towards gays and lesbians.

” ‘He speaks with a new generosity of spirit that’s truly welcoming…There’s no nuance, no couching it in broader terms. It’s just: I’m here to bring people closer to God, not judge them. With Pope Benedict, God bless him, that just didn’t come through.’

“One night recently, St. Rose of Lima Parish in Miami Shores, Florida, asked social justice activists to talk about how Pope Francis has affected their personal and professional lives. Their stories inspired Stevens to join the parish…

” ‘This is a moment of grace for the church,’ Stevens says.”

Elsewhere in his article, Burke profiles St. Cecilia parish in Boston, known for its explicit welcome of LGBT people. Fr. John Unni, the pastor, recalls having to cancel a prayer service during Pride Month at the Archdiocese’s request and acknowledges the greater flexibility parishes have to open their doors to all since Pope Francis was elected.

The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life adds hard data to Burke’s anecdotal evidence that Pope Francis is, at the least, being well received by American Catholics. 85% of Catholics express favorable views of the pope, with 71% believing he is changing the Church and 68% believe this change is an improvement. Among the general population, Pope Francis polls at 66% favorable

And what of concrete practices? According to Pew, there are no marked increases in mass attendance, volunteering, or receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation since the pope was elected. However, the report shows upticks in levels of religiosity, such as praying and reading the Bible, as well as a growing excitement about Catholicism.

And what of LGBT matters under Pope Francis’ leadership? Pew’s numbers report only half of Catholics endorse marriage equality, slightly lower than recently released data by the Public Religion Research Institute. However, a third believe the Church will recognize equal marriage rights by 2050, include 21% who oppose same-gender marriages.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, when commenting on the Pew results for the National Catholic Reporter, concludes with an essential point about “the Francis effect” and how it might be played out locally:

“The results of this survey remind us that the pope is not the Catholic church, although he plays an essential role. If Tip O’Neil is right that ‘All politics is local,’ then it is also true that ‘All Catholicism is local.’ If people become enthusiastic and return to church because of Pope Francis but find that same old same old, then they will turn around and leave. If rather than hearing the message of Francis, which is the message of the Gospel, they hear from the pulpit rules and condemnations, then they will never return.

“Francis cannot save Catholicism all by himself. Bishops and priests have to get with the program. Francis is modeling what it means to be a good bishop, a good priest, a good Christian, but if we don’t follow him, his efforts will fail.”

Gerard O’Connell, a former Vatican correspondent also writing in the National Catholic Reporter, argues that this pope was elected precisely to reform the Church and clarifies what reform means:

“His reform is first and foremost a spiritual one. He aims at a conversion of hearts and minds, a change of attitudes, on the part of all who work in the Vatican and in positions of responsibility in the church. At morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hostel where he lives, Francis delivers challenging, Scripture-based homilies that are the soul of his spiritual-cultural revolution.

“The Jesuit pope is not simply advocating reform by words, he is propelling it forward by the striking example of his own humble, prayerful lifestyle, his preferential option for the poor, his vision of an inclusive church ‘that is poor and for the poor,’ his promotion of ‘a culture of encounter’ and ‘rejection of a culture of confrontation,’ and his effort to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.”

Whether or not the infectious spirit of Pope Francis will be caught by bishops and priests is an open question, though there is evidence it has done so for LGBT issues, as evidenced by a priest in Trinidad and even Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Transforming high papal poll numbers into renewed parish life seems to hinge on that question of whether the Church’s ‘middle management’ can make Pope Francis’ welcome a reality, if they can refocus the Church’s priorities on the poor into local situations.

Through this week, “One Year Later”has explored just how Catholics in the pews have responded and what long-term impact Pope Francis might have as he embarks on a second year. You can view the full series by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Nun Advocating for Transgender Justice Profiled During Catholic Sisters Week

March 12, 2014


Sr. Monica, in middle

National Catholic Sisters Week, currently underway in the US, seeks to honor and celebrate the many women religious who have positively contributed to our world and our Church. For decades, Catholic sisters included justice for gay and lesbian people in these efforts to create change, and they have been ardent advocates for the full equality of every person. Now, Nathan Schneider’s article published by Al Jazeera America reveals the crucial role Catholic sisters play in advancing justice for transgender people in the Church.

Sr. Monica, a pseudonym used in the article due a request by her congregation for anonymity, began ministering among the transgender community in the late 1990s. Her smaller congregation is noted for ministering on society’s margins, and Monica is trained as a spiritual director and liturgist. She began ministering to the lesbian/gay community at first, before recognizing a “call within a call” to accompany the transgender community. The article notes of Sr. Monica’s ministry now:

“Monica has welcomed trans people into her home for retreats, and helped them to pray, and taken them out to dinner dressed, for the first time in public, according to the gender they know themselves to be. She often stays in touch with them for years on end. ‘Her basic message,’ [psychologist Maureen] Osborne says, ‘is to let them know that they are loved by God and that they are meant to embody exactly who they are.’

“Monica has healed souls and saved lives. Yet the leadership of the Catholic Church she serves acts as if her ministry doesn’t exist.”

Currently, there is no official teaching from the Vatican on gender identity aside from an ad hoc document suggesting guidelines on gender transitions,  and a few condemnatory remarks from Pope Benedict XVI in public speeches. Neither can be considered the result of substantive theological reflection or “official” in any way.

In 2010, Sr. Monica convened  a meeting of seven Catholic priests, a deacon, and four transgender Catholics for an afternoon of sharing and reflection. Schneider describes the meeting, the first of its kind, in the following way:

“Over the course of an hour, two trans men and two trans women told their life stories in brief, and the priests had to listen. They talked about the process of discovering that their gender didn’t fit their body — some in childhood, others later in life. They talked about struggles with priests and longings to be reconciled with their faith…

“During the second hour, there was an open discussion. The priests didn’t ask questions so much as affirm, and express sympathy. ‘I commend you for the integrity that you have’ — that kind of thing.

“As the second hour ended, some of the priests began to slip out for other appointments. One of them began to speak, paused, and then said, ‘Your ministry is to us today, and your spirituality is very, very apparent. You’ve helped me personally a great deal.’

“Another pause: ‘Because I’m a queer man.’ After what he’d heard, somehow, his own secret didn’t seem so scary. ‘I’ve come out to a number of people — but not yet to my brothers here.’ “

Sr. Monica’s ministry was sustained for a long time by her religious community, even when bishops were sharply critical of her work. These critics have kept her from being more public about transgender ministry, and now illness has forced her into an early retirement. Sr. Monica has withdrawn from leading retreats and counseling more than 200 transgender people, instead spending time in prayer and silence with the hope of ‘melting into God.’

Hilary Howes

Hilary Howes

At the same time, transgender topics are increasingly addressed by Catholics through writings and workshops sponsored by New Ways Ministry, of which Schneider writes:

“The first-ever Catholic trans conference in the United States took place one Saturday last November at a suburban convent in Towson, Md. About 35 people attended, mostly older women, sitting together in a room with a crucifix on one wall facing another wall of stained glass. The morning’s presentation was by a psychiatrist who works with gender-variant patients at Children’s Hospital. In the afternoon there was a talk by Hilary Howes, a middle-aged businesswoman who converted to Catholicism after her transition at age 40, almost two decades ago…

“Howes said during the conference in Towson, ‘The idea that God is beyond gender is quite clearly there…It’s a beautiful spiritual journey, but if you don’t have to go through it, please don’t.’…

“The day was full of epiphanies…Some who were already familiar with transgender terms and categories were trying to wrap their heads around the genderqueer label that increasingly resonates with young people  — not one gender or the other so much as somewhere in between, or both, or neither.”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, who has ministered to lesbian/gay people for decades, is quoted in the article as saying, “The trans issue is in the Catholic community now where the lesbian and gay issue was in the late ’70s.” Schneider highlights these two sisters as he concludes the article, writing:

“For decades Grammick [sic] has spoken boldly on behalf of the queer community and has been censured mightily for it; where Monica agonizes about whether or not to speak, Grammick simply does so and then deals with whatever blowback comes from the hierarchy. Where Grammick has advocated, Monica has internalized.

“And this eats at her. ‘I am silent while trans people are being killed,’ she says, clenching her shoulders as if holding an invisible weight. ‘They’re being murdered and committing suicide, and I’m silent!’ When she’s worked up like this Monica can flash a gaze that makes her eyes seem steely and certain, until they fill with tears. And then a saying from St. Catherine of Siena comes to mind, turning her anger to a duller sadness. She recites it: ‘Preach the truth as if you had a million voices — it is silence that kills the world.’ “

IMG_0701In whatever way sisters have ministered, the religious women’s persistent accompaniment and advocacy for LGBT justice is a central reason to celebrate them during Catholic Sisters Week. At the same time, the voices of LGBT Catholics, their family, friends, and allies are all needed to carry on Sr. Monica and the sisters’ desire for transgender inclusion.

You can read the full article at Al Jazeera America by clicking here, and read more coverage of trans Catholic issues by this blog by clicking here. New Ways Ministry will also be offering another transgender workshop on Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Washington, DC. For more information on that, please call (301) 277-5674 or email

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,003 other followers