Pope Francis’ Fifth Anniversary: Joy, Mercy and Service Amid Uncertainty

A look at the papacy from a U.S. perspective.

Above, Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 24. Below, crowds gather outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia Sept. 27, 2015, to hear Francis speak about religious liberty during his apostolic visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families.
Above, Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Jan. 24. Below, crowds gather outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia Sept. 27, 2015, to hear Francis speak about religious liberty during his apostolic visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA; Alan Holdren/CNA)

DENVER — Ask Curtis Martin to assess Pope Francis’ impact on the Church in the United States, and the founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students will point to a surge of youthful interest in the Church’s countercultural message.

“Modeling a commitment to the poor and a simplicity of life, Pope Francis has forced people to rethink their view of the Church,” Martin told the Register.

Indeed, the Pope’s Christ-centered approach to evangelization has led lay missionaries to refocus their message at secular campuses, where moral absolutes and reality itself, including the immutability of biological sex, are now in dispute.

“In order to understand what the Church has to say, we must begin with the Person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man who suffers and dies to bring us into right relationship with God,” said Martin. “That will lead you to an understanding of reality: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,’ says Jesus.”

But even as Martin celebrates Francis’ ability to “open minds and hearts,” he worries that the tense public debate over Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the Pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, has stirred confusion and controversy with unpredictable consequences for missionaries and pastors.

“When people have chosen to follow Christ in a dramatic fashion, they have done so because the teachings are provocative and challenging,” he said.

As Catholics mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ pontificate March 13, many other U.S. Catholic leaders echoed Curtis Martin’s praise and affection for the Argentinian Pope. They singled out his groundbreaking visit to the United States, as well as his leadership on the environment and immigration, pastoral outreach and seminary formation.

Yet some, like Martin, also expressed concerns about Amoris Laetitia and the divisions that have sprung up in its wake.

And others want the Church here to do much more to realize the early promise of the “Francis Effect.”

“The people of our local Church will ... remember with great joy his presence here at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families in 2015,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register in an email message that recalled the spirit of “mercy, compassion and charity that infused powerful public moments and deeply grace-filled intimate gatherings” at the 2015 global meeting in his city.

“He has repeatedly challenged us to bear witness to Christ through concrete action — by serving the poor, by helping immigrants, by preserving families and by protecting the sanctity of life.”

In an interview with the Register, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who has issued a pastoral plan of guidelines for Amoris Laetitia, reflected on the Pope’s trip to the nation’s capital and his landmark address before a joint meeting of Congress.

 “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics,” the Holy Father told U.S. lawmakers. 

In his words and actions, Francis distinguished between the power of the Gospel and earthly power, said Cardinal Wuerl, chuckling as he recalled a televised image of the Pope’s small Fiat guarded by a cluster of imposing security vehicles as it moved through city traffic.

The Pope, he said, has caught the attention of a younger generation famously concerned with personal authenticity, and has thus fostered vocations in his diocese, with “78 men in formation.”

Was he also concerned that the simmering controversy over Amoris Laetitia and related matters could affect vocations?

In a Feb. 20 article for First Things, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accused some of Amoris Laetitia’s “interpreters” of advancing “positions contrary to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, by effectively denying that adultery is always a grave objective sin or by making the Church’s entire sacramental economy exclusively dependent on people’s subjective dispositions” — what their consciences discerned to be the right path.

But Cardinal Wuerl saw things differently.

“There is a great embrace of the teaching. There doesn’t seem to be that much resistance,” he said, noting that young priests in his diocese say they are encouraged by the apostolic exhortation.

“The Church’s teaching on doctrine … is the same,” he said, but the papal document offers a stronger emphasis on pastoral engagement and on the role of conscience.

Amoris Laetitia is saying, ‘Go out and share the Gospel by living it and walking with people who have a hard time understanding it,’” he said.

“There is a lot more to forming a conscience, and being pastorally present, than repeating a teaching.”

Anthony Lilles, the academic dean at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, did not address the furor over Amoris Laetitia, but he agreed that the Pope’s broader message had prompted many U.S. bishops to reframe their message and reinvigorate pastoral outreach. And he noted a modest increase in vocations at his own seminary, with recruitment up about 15% over the past five years.

“Bishops have taken their cue” from the Pope’s efforts to provide a more integrated vision of Church teaching. This means a future pastor should address a struggling family’s spiritual and material needs.

The Pope has already shaped the faith and expectations of the newest crop of U.S. seminarians. “But the most important impact of his teachings is still to come,” said Lilles, referring to Pope Francis’ “Gift of Priestly Formation” (Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis), the 2016 guidelines that are being put into action.

The Pope has called for a more integrated approach to priestly formation that brings the spiritual, pastoral, human and intellectual elements together in every aspect of the curriculum.

These moves are designed to fortify priests as they look for new ways to accompany disengaged Catholics. But Francis’ ambitious goal of sending pastors to the “peripheries” must still bear fruit. Surveys confirm a steady decline in Sunday Mass attendance.

“I saw action early in this pontificate on this kind of pastoral outreach and have talked to people who were encouraged and showed [a renewed] interest in the Church,” Philip Lawler told the Register, but he now contends that such expectations have “dried up” and need to be revived.

Lawler has raised questions about a number of the Pope’s teachings and missteps, including his controversial handling of clergy sex-abuse reforms, in a book-length critique of Pope Francis, Lost Shepherd. But he is also impressed with the Pope’s efforts to raise the profile of important social issues. “Francis has elevated the environment and immigration as moral issues,” Lawler told the Register.

Bill Patenaude, a regulator with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who writes about Catholic theology and the environment, has witnessed the Pope’s impact firsthand.

“When people see the Church involved on these issues, they get involved,” said Patenaude, who also serves on the pastoral council for the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island.

Francis’ 2015 encylical on the “Care for Our Common Home,” Laudato Si, presents a distinctly Catholic vision of “integral human development,” anchored in the Church’s teaching on human dignity, the common good, solidarity with the most vulnerable and the stewardship of creation.

Following the Pope’s lead, the U.S. bishops are registering their concerns in public statements and through the Catholic Climate Covenant, an affiliate of the bishops’ conference that offers “a united Catholic voice to support sensible, faith-informed climate public policies.”

But this initiative is still in its infancy, said Patenaude, who fears that the debate over Amoris Laetitia “has clouded reception of Laudato Si” by some active Catholics.

Russell Shaw, author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, underscored the striking “polarization” that has erupted over the past couple of years. Pope Francis has “revived the ‘Catholic left’ in America,” and while the vast majority of Catholics like the Pope “and don’t know or care about such matters,” Shaw suggested that the struggle is consuming the attention of many engaged Catholics.

Francis “inherited the long-standing and often-bitter disagreements about the meaning and import of the Second Vatican Council,” R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, told the Register.

“John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to establish an authoritative interpretation of the Council, one that would put the rancorous 1970s behind us,” Reno said. “But, apparently, they failed, and Francis seems to be taking another approach, one that shifts from a doctrinal emphasis to a more pastoral one. … It’s a way of agreeing to disagree, and not pressing for resolution.”

Reno questioned whether this approach will stand the test of time. But others suggest the upcoming Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment at the Vatican in October could help lay such concerns to rest and re-energize the Church’s evangelization of many young, increasingly disengaged Catholics.

That, said Curtis Martin, is his “hope.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.