U.S. Catholics To Feel Pope's Impact With Archbishop Appointments
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Pope Francis played a big role behind the scenes helping to thaw the relationship between U.S. and Cuba. The Pope certainly showed he can hold sway on the global stage. But he has been making some big changes inside the Catholic Church as well. Since his election, Francis has appointed or promoted some 40 American bishops in places like Kansas, New York and Miami. By far the most prominent is the new Archbishop of Chicago. American Catholics are just beginning to feel the impact of these choices. And as Monique Parsons reports, some are wondering where Francis is taking their church.
MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: Mass is getting started at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest, Illinois, an active perish in a wealthy Chicago suburb.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: (Singing) The lord will reign forever...
PARSONS: Every seat is taken. People stand in the aisles.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BISHOP BLASE CUPICH: You were sent to heal the contrite of heart. Lord, have mercy.
UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: Lord, have mercy.
PARSONS: They're here to see a soft-spoken man from Spokane, Washington...
UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: Christ, have mercy.
PARSONS: Blase Cupich. He became the ninth archbishop of Chicago in November, handpicked by the Pope himself. His friendly homily did seem to have Francis's touch. He spoke about human suffering, the actor Paul Newman and chocolate ice cream.
UNIDENTIFIED PARISHIONERS: (Laughter).
PARSONS: Judging by the laughter and the collection basket, the new archbishop was a hit. The parish donated more than $20,000 to his charity fund. His next stop was a few miles south but a world away, lunch at a homeless shelter in Chicago.
MICHAEL BUDDE: He didn't ask to be designated as Francis's bishop or one of the poster children for what Pope Francis's hopes for the church, the future might look like. But he stuck with it.
PARSONS: That's Michael Budde. He's chairman of Catholic studies at Chicago's DePaul University. He says the Chicago archbishop oversees a microcosm of the global church and a big bureaucracy.
BUDDE: In a way, it's kind of like being the assistant manager at Wal-Mart. You have all the responsibility but none of the capacity to really do anything.
PARSONS: The church isn't as influential as it once was, Budde says. And Catholic institutions are either shrinking or blending in with the broader, secular culture. Still, many are watching carefully. Mary Ann Hackett is the president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a conservative group. She's already troubled by vaguely welcoming remarks Cupich made about pro-choice politicians. She's got her eye on Francis, too.
MARY ANN HACKETT: He spoke about people being obsessed with abortion and homosexuality. And that was really very distressing to people who have been active, like, for 40 years in the pro-life movement.
PARSONS: Hackett says she and her peers are unnerved when the Pope says things that emphasize a new approach, wondering if divorced Catholics could become godparents, say, or asking, who am I to judge, when discussing gay priests.
HACKETT: That causes a lot of confusion in the church. You know, people are distressed about what he's saying. He's beloved. He's certainly a nice person, open. I just think it would be helpful if he were more precise.
PARSONS: But many Catholics say Francis knows exactly what he's doing. His informal remarks are just vague enough that people see him as a kind of Rorschach test. Where some project fears, others see hope.
MICHAEL VIERNES: Pope Francis is definitely a different pope. He's more in tune with the normal people.
PARSONS: Michael Viernes is a Sunday school teacher at St. Anne's Parish in California's Oakland diocese.
VIERNES: Right now, it's a majority of Filipino immigrants.
PARSONS: But with a large Mexican community as well. Viernes holds a foot-long baby Jesus carved from gleaming, honey-colored olive wood, part of his parish's entry in Oakland's annual creche Festival. Half the Catholics here are either Asian or Latino, making it one of the most diverse dioceses in America.
VIERNES: It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight. He welcomes everybody. So that's something new. And the church always needs something new, you know, because God welcomes everybody. We don't push away anybody.
PARSONS: Some see a very personal impact, like Beth Florendo, who's helping Viernes set up the creche.
BETH FLORENDO: When we had a strict pope, a lot of the younger ones were kind of, like, walking away from faith. Now, it's like coming back, which to me is great, definitely.
PARSONS: Polls aren't showing a surge in attendance. But Florendo says her adult children are coming to church again. She hopes that Francis and his bishops can convince them to stay. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.