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.
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."
"This is where I felt most comfortable," McNamara said, calling the risen-Christ figure above the altar "like a welcome-home statue for me."
Eileen Raff grew up in the St. Margaret faith community and said she thinks Harford's ongoing population growth has had a lot to do with the parish's success.
"It's always been a big parish," she noted, adding it might have "a little different approach" than the other parishes.
This was the first Faith Forum Raff had been able to attend. She said she was glad it coincided with the topic of Pope Francis.
"Father Mike is very open, very welcoming. To me, our parish doesn't seem as big as it is because of things like this," Raff said.
54,000 and growing
A year ago, Archbishop William Lori stopped by St. Margaret and The John Carroll School as the Archdiocese of Baltimore said the latest census numbers showed Harford to have the highest percentage of Catholics of any county in the Archdiocese.
At that time, Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine called Harford "a priority" in explaining Lori's decision to visit the Bel Air facilities during the annual Catholic Schools Week.
Harford County has 54,089 Catholics, making up 22 percent of the county's total population of 245,000, archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said Sunday. More than 800 students attend St. Margaret and St. Joan of Arc schools, the county's two Catholic elementary schools, he said.
Schleupner was surprised by that statistic, but he and his parishioners said it makes sense in light of the county's growth in general over the past several years.
"St. Margaret became a big parish as Harford became big," the priest said after the forum.
At roughly 4,400 households, or 13,000 people, St. Margaret is about the same size as St. Ignatius, Hickory, which also serves communities in the greater Bel Air area. Those two large congregations join 10 other Catholic parishes around the county.
Despite its size, St. Margaret has no plans to expand its current building on Hickory Avenue, besides possibly adding on a "gathering space," Schleupner said.
One parishioner pointed out the church bulletin as evidence of the many events constantly going on.
Schleupner noted the church needs not one, but two, nights to honor all of its volunteers for the annual volunteer appreciation evening; about 1,600 volunteers are recognized.
"We have to do it on two nights because we have such a large number of volunteers," he said. "I think it's impressive."
His parishioners may be more numerous, but Schleupner said they are not much different from Catholics in other parts of Maryland.
"I think we in Harford County are similar to Catholics in most places. We want a good expression of faith, good liturgy and Eucharistic adoration," he said. "I think we have a fair number of people that are sensitive to the needs of the poor, and that really drives a lot of our outreach programs."
Schleupner also pointed out more than 100 listings in the church for various ministries and programs.
"One of the issues at work is that a parish like St. Margaret is large... and the plus side of that is we offer an awful lot," he said.