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September 28, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 24

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photo: Moderator Peter McCourt, right, addresses questions to Dr. Massimo Faggioli, left and Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., center, during the Keane Institute lecture held September 18 at Bethel Church in Hampton.

Moderator Peter McCourt, right, addresses questions to Dr. Massimo Faggioli, left and Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., center, during the Keane Institute lecture held September 18 at Bethel Church in Hampton.

Pope Francis as ‘existential thinker’ changing face of Catholicism

Describing Pope Francis as an “existential thinker” and “the real deal,” Dr. Massimo Faggioli and Father Thomas Reese, SJ, indicated in that he is redefining the role of the pontiff and in so doing is putting a new face on Catholicism.

Their Sept. 18 discussion on Pope Francis was one of four presentations this year of the Bishop Keane Institute lecture series, a ministry of Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton. Moderating the dialogue was Peter McCourt, the vice president of Mission for Bon Secours Virginia Health System and adjunct instructor in religious studies/Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Father Reese is senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter, and Dr. Faggioli is the director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at St. Thomas University in Michigan.

Both speakers asserted that Pope Francis is unique in that he is more interested in actions than discussion of the faith, and he is receptive to differing opinions and advice, allowing theologians to think outside of the box and ask questions.

“I never thought I’d see a pope like this in my lifetime!” proclaimed Father Reese.

Dr. Faggioli added that the pope “is a new job description” and that he is striving to make the church more evangelical and gospel-centered.

“The Catholic Church may look like it’s not moving but it’s like glaciers, so it is a slow movement, but when it does move, it moves mountains,” Dr. Faggioli said. “That’s my impression of what’s happening here.”

Dr. Faggioli said that the pope is making changes that are “long overdue” as he readdresses issues such as annulment, homosexuality and contraception. Perhaps most importantly, he has personally affected the lives of many, both Catholics and non-Catholics. As he washes the feet of prisoners and sits with workmen of the Vatican in the cafeteria, he is showing the world the compassion of Catholicism and is modeling the behavior he wishes Catholics to adopt, the speakers maintained.

“He not only talks the talk; he walks the walk,” Father Reese said. “He’s the real McCoy. He’s the real deal.”

For example, when Pope Francis was an archbishop in Latin America, he walked through the slums and met the people who lived there. He saw that they were “good people” who were “doing their best,” that they wanted and needed jobs, that they prayed and were trying to raise children to be good Christians. They expressed their fears like being terrified that when their daughters walked home from school they would be kidnapped and trafficked, Father Reese explained.

“He would sit in their homes, listen to their story, drink tea with them, and then he would explain the Gospel, talk about God’s love for them,” Father Reese said.

Frustrated with the “capitalism and globalization that did not help these people,” Pope Francis became a voice for the third world. He calls people to work together to fix the problems of the world, Father Reese said.

“This is a guy who preaches the Gospel,” Father Reese said. “He doesn’t preach catechism. He preaches the Gospel and its message of Jesus, the love of God, the mercy of God and how we are supposed to respond to his love by loving one another as our brothers and sisters especially the poor.”

“This pope is more interested in how we live our faith than how we talk about it,” Father Reese added. “He wants people to live out the Gospel.”

Dr. Faggioli said Pope Francis is an existential thinker, that he is “more interested in reality” of what is happening now, rather than in ideological thinking.

Father Reese said Pope Francis views the church as being a field hospital that binds up the wounds of people. Rather than being a judgmental, bureaucratic system that imposes penalties, the church should embrace and help people.

“When I see a pope so committed to the poor, so committed to working for peace, so committed to concern for the environment, I get high,” Father Reese said. “It’s so inspiring to see that kind of leadership.”

Father Reese also finds it refreshing that the pope is so open to new ideas and opinions.

“We had a lot of open discussion and debate during the second Vatican Council, but things kind of slowed down,” Father Reese said. “Pope Francis has opened the windows again.”

“This split between the theologians and the bishops has been terrible for the Catholic church, and this openness that he is bringing to the Church I think is going to heal that and allow us to become more innovative and allow us to express the Gospel in a way that is understandable and meaningful to people in the 21st century,” Father Reese said.

In post-lecture interviews, several people from the audience shared the optimism of Father Reese and Dr. Faggioli regarding the future of the Church.

Describing the presentation as excellent, Rosemarie Brennan, a parishioner at St. Olaf in Norge, said she felt the speakers were offering a message of hope.

Joe Chop, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception, said that it was “a breath of fresh air” to hear that Pope Francis is open to input of others.

Immaculate Conception pastor Father Sean Prince said he thought the speakers both “offered the opportunity to explore our faith and our church more deeply.”

“The mission of the Bishop Keane Institute is to bring speakers who will open our minds and challenge us to grow,” Father Prince said. “I think those two speakers provided us with that.”

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