A Sunday at St. Margaret Catholic Church in Bel Air is rarely low-key, and this past weekend was no exception.

People poured out of the packed sanctuary after the noon Mass, one of eight each weekend at St. Margaret and Saint Mary Magdalen Mission, which is a couple of miles up the road, but not everybody was headed home.

Instead, about 50 people filled the adult education center next door to hear Monsignor Michael Schleupner's take on the much-discussed change in style that the new Pope Francis has brought to the church.

The talk was one of Schleupner's regular "Faith Forums," held for the past seven or eight years, roughly since Schleupner arrived at St. Margaret from St. Francis de Sales in Abingdon.


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In Harford, where more than one out of five residents is Catholic, according to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, parish forums that promote frank discussions about church policy, the Pope and the faith in general appear to becoming an important part of church life, particularly at St. Margaret.

Schleupner has rarely shied away from controversial topics. Last year, he held a special "open conversation" on the unique resignation of Pope Benedict, Pope Francis' predecessor.

During Sunday's forum, Schleupner said the new Pope has been clearly trying to change the church for the better, including his absolute opposition to using the priesthood for aggrandizement and his hope of ending careerism.

"Sometimes just the way we do things becomes substance, and I think we are seeing that play out with Pope Francis," he told the gathering, many of whom listened closely and seemed to overwhelmingly agree with Schleupner's mostly positive assessment of Pope Francis' reform-oriented personality.

"Francis said when we stop moving, things will go wrong. That is pretty deafening," Schleupner said.

Schleupner's openness and charisma, some of the attendees said, is one of the reasons their parish has stayed bustling over the years and decades.

"I think it's wonderful and I think Father Mike is phenomenal," Kathy Sangneister, of Bel Air, said about the forum. "I think he is a Pope Francis here at Saint Margaret's."

Schleupner is not a fan of everything the pope has done. He called the massive 39-question survey, sent to Catholics worldwide at the end of 2013, a good start but thought it "was not really done well."

"I think we are going to see more of that approach," he said, acknowledging that many Catholics who are less involved with the church, as well as non-Catholics, seem very intrigued by Pope Francis.

"We cannot blame everything wrong in the world today on secularism, or what we call secularism. We need to look within the church," he said. "The challenge is not so much atheism, but the challenge is to respond to the thirst for God that is there."

One woman told Schleupner: "I have got a lot of friends that are not Catholic that think he [Pope Francis] is the best thing that has ever happened. They are amazed at what he is saying. It's interesting to see if he will make some major changes."

A woman in the group wanted to know if Pope Francis' attitude adjustment would actually be reflected in seminaries. Schleupner said he thinks that remains to be seen.

But, he added: "When you throw a stone in a pond, there is a rippling of the whole pond. That is bound to happen."

Gilly-Ann McNamara, of Darlington, said she returned to the church in 1993.

She said she was intrigued by the growth of non-Catholic or nondenominational "megachurches," especially their success in attracting younger people, but also thought St. Margaret had a lot to offer.

When asked why she came back to the church, she replied, referring to Schleupner: "We have priests like that."