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Local religious leaders find inspiration in Pope Francis' remarks

Local Catholic Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades said the pope is encouraging a more pastoral approach

Saturday, September 21, 2013 - 7:06 am

While some people were startled by Pope Francis' comments Thursday about the Catholic Church's approach to abortion, homosexuality and contraception, local Catholic Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades and others found inspiration.

“You have to read the whole interview,” Rhoades said. “I think he just comes across as he really has the heart of a pastor.

“He said people really need pastors. They don't need clergy acting like bureaucrats,” Rhoades said.

As a bishop, that statement really resonates with him, Rhoades said. While administrative duties must be done, he much prefers being out among the people at churches, in schools and in other ways.

Francis made the remarks in a 12,000-word article published Thursday in Jesuit religious order magazines around the world, The Associated Press reported. Francis is a Jesuit, and the first from that Catholic religious order to serve as pope.

Referring to the Catholic Church's approaches to abortion, homosexuality and contraception, he said the church “sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” The pope went on to say, “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

The pope did reinforce the church's strong stance against abortion Friday, however, denouncing today's “throw-away culture” and saying “people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things,” The Associated Press reported. He made the comments during an audience with Catholic gynecologists, and he urged them not to perform abortions.

“I don't think he is watering down church principle,” Rhoades said Friday by phone from South Bend.

People first have to have an encounter with Jesus Christ and learn about the faith before they can understand the moral consequences for sin, he said.

In today's culture, “we too often get caught up in battles,” Rhoades said. Catholics need to be agents of mercy and compassion, helping to heal those who have been wounded by sin.

“Taking a more generous approach, a more pastoral approach can only help the (Catholic) Church,” said the Rev. John P. Gardner, senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Fort Wayne.

Plymouth is an Open and Affirming Congregation, which means it welcomes people of all genders, sexual orientations, cultures, races and abilities into the full life of the church.

Gardner said the Catholic Church has been “mired” in a few moral issues, and that has alienated a portion of their own constituents and also some Christians with an ecumenical spirit.

“We view the spirit he (Pope Francis) is showing as a breath of fresh air in the Vatican,” he said. “We hope and pray his outlook on faith will be an inspiration, not only for the Roman Catholic community, but for all Christians, who yearn for the Roman Catholic Church to be a strong witness to social justice, peace and reconciliation in our world.”

While he doesn't hear any change in church teachings in Pope Francis' remarks Thursday, Professor Earl Kumfer does hear a difference in approach.

“He is a very, very, pastoral, out-in-the-field kind of person,” said Kumfer, a longtime professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Saint Francis and the interim dean of its School of Arts and Sciences.

The two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both were more scholarly in their approach, Kumfer said.

Francis' thinking could be influenced by his personal experiences coming from a poor country, Kumfer added. Before being elected pope in March, Francis served as a cardinal in Argentina, where he was known for his humility and for going out among the people to help those suffering from poverty and other problems.

Francis' approach has created a little change in his classes, however, Kumfer said.

Instead of being focused on analyzing the written statements issued by the two previous popes, students spend more time discussing the issues Francis raises, in part because they can understand him better, Kumfer said.

For example, instead of talking about “the poor,” Kumfer said Pope Francis talks about the individual person caught in a poverty situation.

The pope's latest remarks also have inspired Rhoades to think about what more the church needs to be doing in this diocese.

For example, he said, what can be done to make Catholic churches and schools more open and accessible to people with disabilities? While church programs and services help many people, who is being left out? After visiting a prison recently, he left asking himself what more can the church do to help people when they get out?

The church does a lot of charity work now, he said, “but we should never be self-satisfied.”