Pope Francis, a year later [Commentary]

After a year in the position, Pope Francis has accomplished much but still has major work to do

March 12, 2014|By Stephen Stahley

1969 was a year I well remember — it was my first year in a seminary in Virginia. I was beginning my journey to the priesthood with an American religious order, the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. Nine years later, I was ordained a priest in Silver Spring, Md. That same year, a Catholic seminarian in Argentina was ordained a Jesuit Priest. His name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

While it seems impossible, forty-five years have passed. Father Bergoglio is now Pope Francis, and approaching his one year anniversary in the post, and I am a husband, a father and a professional in the field of mental health. A quarter century has elapsed since I resigned from my religious order to marry and have a family. In significant ways, the priestly careers of the pope and I have diverged. In ways that are equally significant, our common experience of the priesthood has converged.

All students in Catholic seminaries in the 1960s to the mid-1980s were deeply influenced by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. Every phase of seminary education — biblical studies, doctrinal theology, pastoral training, liturgical practice, preaching, Canon Law — reflected the insights of the great council convened by Pope John XXIII and completed by his successor, Pope Paul VI.

All Catholic priests ordained from 1964 through 1986 bore the strong imprint of Vatican II which stressed a spirit of engagement with the wider world, a new openness to other religions and a healthy embrace of contemporary scholarship in fields as varied as philosophy, the behavioral sciences, history, linguistics and literature. No religious order embraced the renewal ignited by Vatican II with greater energy and enthusiasm than the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits — to which the future pope belonged.

As it was for Pope Francis, my most rewarding years in the priesthood were spent in the inner-city, in my case, Cleveland, Ohio, working among the poor and the abandoned. In his priestly service to the destitute and vulnerable people in Buenos Aires, the future pope experienced firsthand the frightening toll that poverty exacts from its victims.

The pope's unambivalent pronouncement on the inherent injustice of trickle-down economics was not part of an ivory-tower academic treatise. His words flowed from a heart that has been deeply touched by the suffering caused by an economic system that enriches the few at the expense of the many. My years as the priest-pastor of an inner-city parish gave me the same perspective as Pope Francis when it comes to social justice, income inequality, and the imperative for the Catholic Church to be a community of and for the poor. Urban ministry amid impoverished and forgotten people changes the way a priest looks at the world.

Over the course of his life as a priest, Pope Francis has come to the profound conviction that the church is as much a society of sinners as it is a communion of the saints. Anyone who describes the Catholic Church as a field hospital, as does Pope Francis, knows that human life is messy, burdened with sorrow and in constant need of support, encouragement and love.

In choosing the title Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) for his first official papal pronouncement, Pope Francis echoed the title of one of the pivotal documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), which firmly anchored the mission of the Catholic Church in the struggles of all humanity for peace, justice and the dignity of all people.

While joy and hope have, indeed, characterized the first year of his pontificate, there remain complex and controversial issues that urgently await the attention of Pope Francis. They are issues that go to the very core of the church's mission and its credibility as well.

The unresolved, systemic problems of the clergy sex abuse scandal must be addressed. The bishops who shielded and enabled pedophile priests have betrayed their flocks and caused irreparable harm to children. They are failed shepherds. Their prompt dismissal is imperative.

Elevating women to positions of leadership in the Church is another pivotal issue that deserves a papal champion. The time has come for women to have access to all seven of the Church's sacraments.

As we mark his first anniversary Thursday on the Throne of St. Peter, I am proud of the priestly heritage I share with the Holy Father. He has brought the gifts of joy and hope. Going forward, I pray that Pope Francis will bring the gifts of justice, healing and equality to the church he has been summoned to lead.

Stephen Stahley lives with his family in Westminster and works in the field of mental health.  His e-mail is: sjs1951@mail.com.

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