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 popes 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 popes comments. Its 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 churchs traditional teachings, they said, and he appears committed to using his common touch to spread the Gospel of Jesus to an increasingly secularized world.
Hes 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.
Hes a great man, said Julia Terrazas, 16, a junior at Charlottes Phillip O. Berry Academy. He doesnt take too much pride onto himself. And hes 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 dioceses 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 peoples 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 Sundays 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 popes interview last week, saying they predictably distorted and misinterpreted his comments about abortion and gay marriage to serve their liberal agenda. He doesnt question the churchs teachings at all.
The popes 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 hes 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 bishops church and a citadel for traditional Catholic teaching for 32 years.
After Sundays 11 a.m. Mass, he called Francis a peoples pope. As for the interview, he didnt 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 popes 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.
Its 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.
Were not supposed to be focused on that, said Juan Fernandez, 24, a Mexican immigrant who makes sandwiches at Subway. Its not good to fight. God didnt 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.
Hes doing a great job representing us as Latinos, said Evaristo Hernandez, 40, a construction worker from Mexico whos been coming to the Mass for eight years. And he is showing our younger ones how to live right. They are the future.
Editors Note: Tim Funk attends St. Peter Catholic Church.
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