A 'reformed' Catholic hopes Francis can heal the church

By coincidence, last Easter I was in St. Peter's Square in Rome as Pope Benedict XVI delivered what turned out to be his final Easter Mass as head of the Catholic Church. A week from Sunday, the new pope will deliver his first.

Expectations for Pope Francis are high. The Argentine, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is the first Jesuit pope, and the first from the Americas. Here's hoping he will lead the church into a more transparent and progressive era.


But hoping is not the same as hopeful. Fixing the church will not be easy.

I'm what might charitably be called a "reformed Catholic." Raised in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y., by two once-strongly Catholic parents, I was deeply wedded to my religious identity and St. Thomas Parish. I was a member of our church's teenage retreat group and by tenth grade was teaching Sunday school to fourth-graders. I nearly attended LeMoyne College, Syracuse's Jesuit university. Having taken the sacraments of communion and confirmation, I believed I would eventually marry, christen my children and be buried in Catholic ceremonies.


As an adult, I began to think and read beyond my childhood indoctrinations, and the church's rigidity and guilt-based orthodoxy became off-putting. It didn't take long for this Doubting Thomas to pivot from questioning the church as an institution to questioning the existence of God.

Catholic guilt began to take on a new, darker meaning. Reports of rampant pedophilia and clerical corruption to cover up these abuses sullied the church's reputation and tarnished its many good works. I hold no brief for members of the church hierarchy who participated in or ignored these crimes. But I do empathize with rank-and-file Catholics angered by the clergy's betrayals.

As I stood amid 70,000 worshipers and curious tourists outside the Vatican last Easter, I suddenly felt overwhelmed. And then, to my surprise, I started to cry. You can remove the boy from the church but never fully remove the church from the boy, I suppose.

Alongside me in St. Peter's Square that morning was Eric J. Lyman, a close friend since college. For more than a decade, Eric has been a freelance American journalist based in Rome; he's now a veteran Vatican-watcher. After reading all the positive accounts of the new pope, I called Eric to solicit his impressions.

He said Pope Francis' elevation to the papacy is, indeed, reason to be optimistic about Catholicism's future. Cardinal Bergoglio was selected in part because many of his fellow cardinals appreciated that he did not campaign for the position. This humility, says Eric, could be the new pope's most important asset.

Cardinal Bergoglio carried his own bags to and from the Rome hotel where he stayed before moving into St. Martha's House, the dormitory where cardinals reside during papal selection conclaves. After being chosen, Pope Francis opted not to ride back to St. Martha's, as was his right, in the exclusive sedan with the number "1" Vatican license plate; instead, he took a seat on the shuttle bus alongside his former peers. Unlike his predecessor, who enjoyed the trappings of office, including the expensive red shoes he wore during Mass, the proudly pedestrian new pope gave his first papal address in the simple black shoes he wore as a cardinal.

"I think his humility is appealing, but it's not clear whether it will help the church," Eric warns. In fact, one of Pope Francis' first tasks will be responding to the 300-page report from a recently completed internal investigation of alleged abuses within the church, including cover-ups for pedophilic priests, the blackmail of Vatican officials reportedly participating in a gay sex ring, and the mismanagement of church finances.

It's encouraging to have a humble, fresh face from the "new world" heading the Catholic Church. What's unclear is whether Pope Francis' background and temperament can actually reform the Vatican and the church, and guide the planet's 1.2 billion Catholics toward a more promising future. I suspect I'm not the only reformed Catholic who wishes him well.


Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.