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September 22, 2016

A year after Philadelphia visit, Pope Francis remains source of pride, hope for local Catholics

Religion Pope Francis
09222016_Pope_Francis_TC Thom Carroll, File/PhillyVoice

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway moments before the start of the papal Mass on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. Estimates placed the crowd at about 900,000 people.

The cheers — jubilant, multilingual and deafening — preceded Pope Francis as he paraded along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway prior to serving Mass to some 900,000 people who had poured into Center City from all over the world. Faces were full of wide smiles and joyous tears as the Holy Father occasionally paused to bless babies or kiss sick children.

Monday marks one year since Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia for a whirlwind weekend capped by that stirring Mass on the Parkway.

Surely, the papal visit remains a memorable moment for nearly anyone who crammed into the infamous security zones to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. But was it the transformative event anticipated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia?

"I think anytime the Bishop of Rome shows up, it's always an opportunity for people to come together," said Christian Valin, 57, of Levittown, Bucks County, after attending noon Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City on a recent workday. "I look back on that ... with joy and with hope."

In the preceding months, church leaders proclaimed the papal visit as an opportunity to reinvigorate an archdiocese still reeling from the Catholic abuse scandal, declining church attendance and financial hardships that forced dozens of parish and school mergers and closures.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, there is little evidence suggesting the papal visit during the World Meeting of Families prompted an instant revival within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Church attendance continued its decades-long descent after Pope Francis left. Likewise, infant baptisms, Catholic marriages and parish school enrollments kept falling, too.

Archbishop Charles Chaput forecast an "explosion of hope" last year, but he also cautioned that the complete impact could take years to surface, drawing on the effects he witnessed after Pope John Paul II visited Denver two decades ago.

In that regard, some priests and parishioners credit the humility, openness and compassion displayed by Francis as creating a sense of optimism within the church and, in some cases, restoring a sense of pride.

Such anecdotal signs of renewal are there in the increased enrollment at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where Pope Francis stayed last year. They are there in a Norristown parish prayer group that has swelled to some 100 participants. And they are displayed by a priest who has taken to wearing his collar when he goes out in public.


The headlines from the years preceding Pope Francis' visit were anything but jubilant. They told a depressing — and often harrowing — story of clerical abuse, shuttered schools and merged parishes.

Despite Catholicism's deep roots in Philadelphia, maintaining religious pride was not easy.

"I think it's having a lasting effect on the people. It's not like we have twice as many people in church as we did before. But a lot of people are taken by him." – Monsignor Joseph Garvin, pastor of Saint Christopher Parish, Somerton

"I used to enjoy just slipping into a sports jersey and going to a mall," said Monsignor Joseph Garvin, pastor of Saint Christopher Parish in the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia. "Now, I usually wear a collar wherever I go. I'm not ashamed to be a priest.

"I would always be treated cordially by people. I think, now, you're almost feeling like you're representing a rock star in the Holy Father. The cordial treatment I would get before is even better."

The archdiocese has shrunk to 219 parishes, down 18 percent from the 266 it boasted in 2011. Parish school enrollment has dropped 13 percent during that same period. Average weekly attendance, measured each October, is down 11 percent. (See table below.)

The rates at which those numbers have fallen have slowed in recent years, but the archdiocese still faces many of the challenges faced by the larger Roman Catholic Church in America — financial difficulties, growing secularism and backlash over the clerical abuse scandal.

Yet, in Pope Francis the Catholic Church has a leader viewed as favorably as any in the world. The realness of his faith — put on display in Philadelphia as he washed the feet of prisoners — provides Catholics a source of inspiration and hope.

"He's not afraid to get his hands dirty," Garvin said. "When he says he's with the poor, it's not just quoting the gospels saying, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' He's really with the people.

"I think it's having a lasting effect on the people. It's not like we have twice as many people in church as we did before. But a lot of people are taken by him."

One parishioner made a point of telling Garvin that he returned to the church specifically because of Pope Francis, whom the parishioner had taken to calling "Papa Frank."

"It's nice when you hear those things," Garvin said. "I figure if one person told me, there are at least 10 others that have been affected."


The Church of St. Patrick, in Norristown, Montgomery County, hosts a prayer group on Friday nights. Attendance once numbered between 30 or 40 people. But since the papal visit, attendance has at times surged to some 100 people.

"Of course it's him," the Rev. Gus Puleo said of the Holy Father. "It's not a coincidence. It did it because of him."

Puleo pastors a parish that is mostly Hispanic, but was founded by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. The parish reflects the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in America.

"They saw a personal touch. It seemed like an intimate touch between the pope and each individual. I think the people became more faithful..." – the Rev. Gus Puleo, pastor, Church of St. Patrick in Norristown

Across the United States, Catholics are older, but also more diverse than they were three decades ago. The Hispanic population has risen dramatically — more than one-third of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, up from 10 percent in 1987.

Throughout his trip to the United States, Francis delivered many of his remarks in Spanish, including his homily during the papal Mass. Francis — the first pope from Latin America — often was peppered with Spanish greetings as he passed through crowds.

"They saw a personal touch," Puleo said. "It seemed like an intimate touch between the pope and each individual. I think the people became more faithful. They saw him as an encounter with Christ."

Many St. Patrick parishioners traveled to Center City to see Francis virtually everywhere he went. They participated in the Mass, the Festival of Families and listened as Pope Francis delivered a speech on immigration outside Independence Hall.

Since then, Puleo said he has observed increased unity among his parishioners, but also between other Latino parishes.

"He makes everyone (feel) so important and to be wanted in that unity that he professes," Puleo said. "He comes here and brings all of us closer to each other, which makes us closer to Christ."


Despite the fanfare of the papal visit and the popularity of Francis, there are Catholics who still hold reservations about the church itself.

Louana Neducsin, 69, of Philadelphia, describes herself as an "unconventional Catholic" who occasionally attends Mass at Saint Patrick's Church in Rittenhouse Square. She credited Francis for instilling hope within Catholics, but she counts herself among those wishing the church would become more accepting of divorce, gay marriage and birth control.

"I think it's made inroads, but we have a long way to go,"  Neducsin said. "I think the modern Catholic millennial wants more change within the Catholic religion. There was this feeling that change is coming. Hopefully, that feeling will perpetuate or assimilate into real change. He's speaking something that could become a good movement."

Pope Francis has not changed church doctrine on gay marriage or divorce, but he has shifted the church's tone on the issues. Speaking in 2013 on the subject of gay priests, he famously asked, "Who am I to judge?"

"I think it did invigorate the church locally. Many Catholics were quite enthused ... From my perspective, the archbishop has just squelched it. That's really unfortunate." – Terry Rey, associate professor of religion, Temple University 

"I think that was a very influential thing to hear from the pope," said Terry Rey, an associate professor of religion at Temple University. "I think that set in motion a set of expectations, especially among liberal Catholics."

Earlier this year, Francis issued an apostolic exhortation titled "The Joy of Love," which some interpreted as opening a door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.

Chaput did not. His instructions to clergy, issued in July, said divorced and remarried Catholics must refrain from sexual intimacy to receive Holy Communion in the archdiocese.

Rey questions whether Chaput's actions mitigated the enthusiasm sparked by the papal visit.

"I think it did invigorate the church locally," Rey said. "Many Catholics were quite enthused. Some alienated Catholics might have returned to the church. ... From my perspective, the archbishop has just squelched it. That's really unfortunate."

Chaput was unavailable for comment for this story.

A Catholic himself, Rey said he has not returned to church since the archdiocese began fighting Pennsylvania legislation to extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims.

Clerical abuse remains a raw issue, though Pope Francis attempted to heal some wounds while in Philadelphia. After meeting privately with five survivors of abuse at the hands of priests, he then vowed that clergy and bishops would be held accountable for the "sins and crimes" of abuse.

Abuse victims since have challenged the church to live up to Francis' remarks. Several gathered alongside state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, on Tuesday to decry efforts to kill legislation that would retroactively extend the statute of limitations to sexual abuse cases fought in civil court. That extension stands as the only way many abuse victims can seek justice, they said.

"We have a right to justice," said Rozzi, an abuse survivor. "It is time for anybody in our way to get out of our way and open that door to justice."


Many of the statistics showcasing the state of the archdiocese tell the story of a church in decline. But one figure — enrollment at the archdiocesan St. Charles Borromeo Seminary — continues to rise.

The seminary's rector, Bishop Timothy Senior, credits Pope Francis for motivating the next generation of church leaders.

"His leadership inspires people," Senior said. "The example of leadership is very engaging and it's transformative when you encounter it. That can only help when a young man is considering a call to the priesthood."

"As important as it was, now here we are a year later. What are we doing about it? We continue to challenge and encourage people in that regard." – the Rev. Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish, Hunting Park

St. Charles is housing 160 seminarians this year — a 13 percent increase from last year and a 33 percent jump from two years ago. Eighteen of the newcomers are studying for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The pontiff's brief stay at the seminary last September increased its visibility, Senior said. But it also gave everyone there — from the seminarians to the kitchen workers — an opportunity to see the Holy Father's faith at work.

Senior recalled the way Pope Francis individually greeted a group of people with disabilities upon arriving at the seminary. He later did the same with a series of staffers who were unable to see him speak inside the seminary's chapel. On neither occasion did Pope Francis rush to get through the crowd.

"He doesn't show favorites," Senior said. "He doesn't give wealthy benefactors more time than the people who are working in the kitchen or the security officers. ... This is the model of leadership that reflects the leadership of Jesus. In the eyes of God, we're all the same."


It's not just seminarians who have been influenced by Pope Francis.

Many current clergymen are trying to imitate his leadership and maintain the enthusiasm sparked by the papal visit. 

"As important as it was, now here we are a year later," said the Rev. Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish in Hunting Park. "What are we doing about it? We continue to challenge and encourage people in that regard."

The Rev. Joseph Corley, pastor of Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Darby, Delaware County, says he has tried to implement the pope's pastoral approach in nearly everything he does.

"It's just refreshing to have a different view," Corley said. "For decades the church emphasized doctrine and authority, which isn't bad. You need that. But you also need this more sympathetic, pastoral approach."

Corley has held church discussions on the pope's various writings, including his encyclical on the environment and his two exhortations, "The Joy of Love" and "The Joy of the Gospel." He appreciates when Pope Francis instructs clergy to avoid Phariseeism — observing religious law without genuineness.

For the Year of Mercy, which runs until Nov. 20, Corley asked four artists to complete pieces expressing the theme of mercy to hang at the back of the church. He also placed a spotlight at the front door of the confessional.

The confessional, Corley said, should not be the dark and scary place that many perceive.

"You can see when you talk about mercy, (it's) not being ashamed or afraid," Corley said. "It's powerful. ... There's a spotlight on the confessional — like this is light."

It's just one effort in a larger attempt to keep the lessons as fresh and the energy as high as the day Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia nearly one year ago.