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Charlotte Catholics like new pope, though their reasons vary

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  • In Pope Francis’ own words

    Last week, Pope Francis’ long interview with Jesuit magazines was all the buzz in Catholic circles. To read the full interview:

    Here’s a sampling of what he said:

    “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful. … I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.”

    “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

    “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

    “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Six months after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the pontiff from Argentina is a hit with American Catholics. In a Pew Research poll released this month, eight in 10 rated him favorably, with just 4 percent offering an unfavorable opinion.

That glowing view appears to be shared by Charlotte-area Catholics, based on 25 Observer interviews conducted after Masses Sunday, Sept. 22, at five churches.

But why do they like this pope? Those answers can vary, depending on which group of Catholics is speaking.

Parishioners at St. Peter, a liberal Jesuit parish in uptown Charlotte, and St. Matthew, a middle-of-the-road megachurch in Ballantyne, cited headline-grabbing comments by the pope, including those last week in a much-discussed interview with Jesuit magazines.

The pope’s words, they said, suggest he wants to lead a more modern Catholic church, one that is less judgmental and more welcoming of groups that have long felt rejected – including gays, divorced Catholics and many women.

“A great breath of fresh air injected into the church” is how Charlotte physician Geof Chapman, 64 and a longtime St. Peter parishioner, referred to the pope’s comments. “It’s a wonderful shift of emphasis.”

But members of St. Patrick Cathedral, conservative Bishop Peter Jugis’ church in Dilworth, and St. Ann, the Park Road parish where many flock to celebrate the Mass in Latin, painted the Holy Father as a reliably orthodox Catholic.

He has made no moves to change the church’s traditional teachings, they said, and he appears committed to using his common touch to spread the Gospel of Jesus to an increasingly secularized world.

“He’s showing the world what it means to be Catholic and steering the church in the right direction,” said James Carter, 41, of Davidson, a father of nine who works at Bank of America and has attended St. Ann for six years.

Then there are the immigrants from Mexico who attended the afternoon Spanish Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption in east Charlotte. Rather than weigh in on the culture wars, they described their pride in “El Papa,” the first pope from Latin America. They likened him to another Francis – the gentle saint from Assisi – and said he is following in the footsteps of Jesus by embracing personal humility and showing solidarity for the poor.

“He’s a great man,” said Julia Terrazas, 16, a junior at Charlotte’s Phillip O. Berry Academy. “He doesn’t take too much pride onto himself. And he’s patient with people, too.”

‘A different tone’

“Francis keeps on surprising,” proud Pastor Pat Earl told his congregation at St. Peter near the end of the 9 a.m. Mass.

Like the new pope, Earl is a member of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, an order of priests founded in 16th century Spain by Ignatius of Loyola. Francis is the first Jesuit ever elected pope. And on its website, St. Peter has highlighted a link to that long interview with the pope in America, a Jesuit magazine.

Earl encouraged his flock to read it all: “He sets a different tone, a different mood … in our church that we desperately need.”

The pope addresses many issues in the interview. Media reports have focused on comments in which the pope appears to mildly scold conservative Catholics, including U.S. bishops, for clinging to “small-minded rules” and for being “obsessed” with abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception.

Such words resonate at St. Peter, a church that shook up the Charlotte diocese’s conservative leadership last year by insisting that both sides be presented at its forum on a proposed state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

After Mass, outside the church, Jean Miller, 44, a Charlotte cookbook author who has attended St. Peter since 2011, said she likes that the new pope wants to address the many needs in society, including those of the poor, the immigrant and others who are often marginalized.

“His focus,” she said, “is toward reaching out and serving other people as Christ did.”

Her words were echoed after the 5:30 p.m. Mass at St. Matthew, the spiritual home to 8,700 families – including James Thamm and wife Martha Rinehart, who met through St. Matthew.

“Finally we have a pope who is imitating what Jesus stood for,” said Thamm, 54, who teaches Taekwondo in Mint Hill. “He is opening people’s eyes to God rather than just religion.”

Rinehart, 42, an accountant, is following Pope Francis on Facebook.

“I really like how accessible he is to people. I never felt connected to the Vatican before. It was always such a hierarchy,” she said.

Teachings not questioned

The pastor at St. Ann, a favorite of traditionalist Catholics, also offered warm words for Pope Francis at Sunday’s Masses – including the Tridentine, or Latin, Mass at 12:30 p.m.

But the Rev. Timothy Reid began with criticism of the way the news media reported on the pope’s interview last week, saying they “predictably distorted and misinterpreted his comments about abortion and gay marriage to serve their liberal agenda. … He doesn’t question the church’s teachings at all.”

The pope’s point, Reid told his congregation, “was that we must first help people enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ so that they will be better able to receive his teachings.”

Many of the cars in the St. Ann parking lot had decals calling for an end to abortion. And Michael Henthorn, 38, who attended the Latin Mass with his two young kids, said he’s been most impressed by Pope Francis’ attention to children with special needs.

“I recall the image of parents taking this little boy with special needs and the pope carrying him in his arms and giving him a kiss,” said Henthorn, an English teacher in Rock Hill whose wife is studying to be a teacher to special needs children. “The pope is a man of great mercy and respect for life.”

Self-described conservative Ronald Russell, a retired labor relations executive, has worshiped at St. Patrick Cathedral – the bishop’s church and a citadel for traditional Catholic teaching – for 32 years.

After Sunday’s 11 a.m. Mass, he called Francis “a people’s pope.” As for the interview, “he didn’t take anything away from the doctrine,” Russell said. Instead, he was reminding the faithful that “we, as Catholics, should not judge other people.”

Also attending the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Patrick and singing the pope’s praises: John Humphreys, 64, an Anglican and retired furniture wholesaler who is considering becoming a Catholic.

“I see Christ in him, I hear Christ in him,” he said about the pope. “He is making me even more want to be a Catholic.”

‘It’s not good to fight’

After the 3 p.m. Spanish-language Mass at Our Lady of Assumption, the Latino Catholics showed little interest in picking a side – liberal or conservative – in the war of words still raging within the Catholic Church.

“We’re not supposed to be focused on that,” said Juan Fernandez, 24, a Mexican immigrant who makes sandwiches at Subway. “It’s not good to fight. God didn’t tell us to fight.”

Fernandez and others interviewed after the Mass had less to say about Pope Francis’ words than about his actions. Like his clear affection for the poor. And his decisions to drive a 1984 Renault and live in a simple guesthouse rather than in the spacious papal apartments.

“He’s doing a great job representing us as Latinos,” said Evaristo Hernandez, 40, a construction worker from Mexico who’s been coming to the Mass for eight years. “And he is showing our younger ones how to live right. They are the future.”

Editor’s Note: Tim Funk attends St. Peter Catholic Church.

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