The People’s Pope

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In addition to our weekly blog posts, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 8 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. To increase their circulation, our website will publish new pieces each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “God and the City,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the second of eight installments.

In the year 1808, The Most Reverend Richard Luke Concanen became the first Catholic bishop appointed to the Diocese of New York. Unable to even set foot on American soil due to embargo laws, Concanen spread the word of God to New York City from overseas through communication with missionary priests. At the time, Catholics were so despised and such a small minority of the population in New York City that magazines such as The Menace, which had over 1 million subscribers at the time, were solely dedicated to spreading lurid myths and fantastical lies about the alleged deviance of Catholicism. Left with no other options, the Catholic subculture in New York City organized to form its own schools, social welfare, and political infrastructure.

Two centuries later, these systems haven’t just prevailed—they have been adopted by the secular public. Self-identifying Catholics make up approximately 40% of the population in today’s New York City (as opposed to just 20% of the U.S. population), and they are the largest group of landowners in Manhattan. In addition, the Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of healthcare services in New York state, and in the world.

Catholicism has a great stake in the greatest city in the world. From improved living conditions to higher education, the Catholic Church has impacted, and continues to impact, New York City in innumerable ways. But the growth of Catholicism has largely been stifled—in the late 20th century, the faith began experiencing a sharp decline in the United States. The last 50 years have seen the number of annual baptisms ebb and flow as population consistently grows. Mass attendance has steadily decreased as well. 1995 to 2000 saw the largest mass attendance drop, from 35% to 22%. Since 2005, mass attendance has slightly fluctuated around this number each year by a few percentage points. This data leaves us with a burning question: why? Living conditions for Catholics have significantly improved since the 1960s. In fact, John F. Kennedy dispelled the long-persistent concern that Catholic-Americans were more loyal to the Vatican than the United States with his election as the first and only Catholic president to date. This occurred just prior to the steady decrease in Catholic populations. What has caused this steady decline?

Some theologians, like those who compose the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, argue that the steady decline in the U.S. Catholic population is due to tightening immigration laws. The Catholic population in the United States is built on immigrants, and Catholics are more likely than any other demographic in the United States to be first or second-generation immigrants. In fact, roughly half of all Catholics in the U.S. either came from another country or have parents who did. While this is one theory for declining numbers, others exist. Many local churches argue that the decline in American Catholicism can be accounted for by a decrease in orthodox practices under the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, this council abandoned Latin as the universal language of mass, allowed Catholics to visit the houses of Protestant worship and read Protestant Bibles, loosened clergy dress-codes, disavowed proselytism, and adapted liturgy. While these changes were extremely dramatic, it is important to recognize that many theologians support council’s decisions as well. Finally, some theologians, like Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, take a more abstract approach, claiming that it isn’t American Catholicism that’s in decline, but rather western civilization. These scholars argue that declined voter participation, economic failures, and political stand-stills point to an age of complacency in which Catholicism is decreasing, as part of an overarching mood of futility expressed through apathy toward larger religious institutions. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the 2013 papal enclave realized that mass attendance numbers and waning participation in the sacraments pointed to an obvious truth—the Catholic Church needed a revitalization.

The Catholic Church, not long ago characterized as archaic and corrupt, is now at the forefront of speaking out on social justice issues.

As the first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope from the Americas, Pope Francis was the perfect man for this revitalization. Many news outlets report that he is the most admired Pope to ever exist, citing the fact that he not only has a 90% favorability rating from U.S. Catholics, but also a 70% approval rating from all Americans, including secular individuals and atheists. Indeed, Pope Francis has been deemed “The Pope of the People.” When the Pope visited New York City in the fall of 2015, an unprecedented number of New Yorkers crowded Central Park, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the United Nations, and all the other places where he made stops. He received standing ovations at every place he spoke, and when he took to the altar to deliver mass to 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden, he shared the message that “God is living in our cities.”

Yet this was anything but a message of idealism and complacency. Pope Francis spoke to the marginalized and forgotten. “In big cities,” he said, “beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city. … [We need] a hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work.”

Under Pope Francis, the number of practicing Catholics has increased globally, specifically in China and central Africa, both of which represent areas currently experiencing a rapid boom in urban population growth. However, it should be noted that, domestically, the rate of practicing Catholics has yet to return to its height in the 1960s. In the United States, Pope Francis has united Americans through his faith and social activism. In countries like the United States where the Catholic faith is no longer “new,” what may be most important is that Pope Francis has demonstrated how to lead as a person of faith by creating unification between different cultural backgrounds, and by spreading the word of God in a way which has reflected positively on the church and opened minds. The Catholic Church, not long ago characterized as archaic and corrupt, is now at the forefront of speaking out on social justice issues. Under Francis, the church does not ignore social issues which often lead to tension between the religious and secular worlds but addresses these social justice issues and takes a stance which both upholds church doctrines and shows compassion, love, and understanding to an increasingly secular and urban population.

In my mind, and in the minds of many, this exemplifies the true purpose of the church: to uphold the word of God; to share the word of God; to show compassion to those who struggle or have yet to accept the word of God; and to forgive those who disobey the word of God.

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To be specific, Pope Francis has succeeded as a Christian leader and gained respect in the secular world because he practices this interpretation of the church’s role. In the four years of his papacy, Pope Francis has focused primarily on decreasing income inequality and aiding the poor. However, he has not strayed away from taking a stance on important political issues. Some of the major hot-topic decisions that Pope Francis has made have garnered support from a more diverse following of individuals than the typical mass-attending Catholics: the allowance of Priests to absolve women who have repented of the sin of abortion, the call for a welcoming of individuals who both identify as gay and seek the Lord, vocal acknowledgment of evolution and climate change, and his outspoken support of refugees. While these are just a few of the most reported statements made by the Vatican under Pope Francis, they speak to a greater trend in his leadership.

Pope Francis delivers a message of love and forgiveness. In the past, religious leaders like his predecessor turned a blind eye to these issues publicly to avoid political factioning within the church, alienating secular individuals and churchgoers who were earnestly wrestling with these issues. While Benedict XVI hid his opinions on polemical topics in letters to his bishops, Pope Francis proclaims them aloud on the streets of El Barrio. He focuses on practicing Jesus’ message of expressing God’s love by aiding those who are less privileged than himself. It is important to note as well that Pope Francis does not compromise the doctrine of the church in his statements. He upholds the teachings of the Lord delivered through the Holy Bible, yet recognizes that it is God’s role to ultimately judge the sins of others and not our own. In this way, the Pope realistically shares the Word of God with an increasingly urban and secular society which cannot and should not be reached through threats of Hell and condemnation. This is important, because it gives hope that the church may be seen as an inviting and accessible place for young adults newly beginning their walk with God, and many of which likely grew up outside of the church having not received a full understanding of the Lord’s plan for them and thus having made decisions without Him in mind.

Pope Francis is an example of how religious leaders should work in an increasingly urban society.

In urban centers where Catholicism is currently experiencing its most rapid growth, this approach is essential to the continued growth of the church. Catholic missionary work in Central Africa focuses on charitable work, as opposed to replacing important cultural traditions with Catholic practices. In China as well, Catholic missionary work is closely monitored by the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. These growing urban populations are made up almost entirely of new converts to the faith, which is extremely significant on a global level. Though it is sometimes difficult to see statistical changes in Catholic church attendance domestically, it is clear that Pope Francis’ work has made an impact on an urban, international level.

If you, like me, are a Catholic who cares about social justice and hopes for peace between people of differing theological views, Pope Francis is an answer to your prayers. If you follow another belief system, Pope Francis is an example of how religious leaders should work in an increasingly urban society. We can all learn a great deal from the Pope about leading with faith. Like Pope Francis, we should adhere to our values, preach those values, and not attack those who have trouble accepting those values. To me, Pope Francis is a revolutionary. As I attempt to navigate both the religious and secular world in a city as busy as New York, his words and actions help me to see the hope which God gives each and every one of us through the midst of the smog.

Mollie Bayer (BC ’19) is an Urban Studies and Sustainable Development major from Miami, Florida. When she’s not busy reading in Butler Library, you can find her testing out new recipes, scheming her next outfit, or making travel plans. Mollie loves God and New York City, and hopes to share His love with all of her friends and family.