Ten years ago, the world met the first Pope Francis with an unassuming wave from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. The first pope from outside Europe since the eighth century, he arrived from Argentina also the first from the Western Hemisphere and south of the equator. Pope Francis famously went to the margins of the Church, both in his travels and in his focus on the poor. From his curial appointments and eventual reform of that central Vatican bureaucracy seemed to emerge a new point of view, oriented towards “shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” as he said at his first Chrism Mass in 2013.
To say it was all refreshing for your average pew-bound American Catholic is a bit of an understatement. After a decade that sense of freshness has necessarily worn off. But for rank-and-file Catholics here in North America, Francis remains revelatory. This decade of Pope Francis has seen massive shifts in how the Catholic Church orients herself toward the outgroup, the poor, and the world at large. While those changes have been overwhelmingly positive by the estimation of most any unbiased observer, the neat narrative of progress is not the whole story.
Meanwhile, the growing discontent with Francis from some quarters has escalated steadily. Increasing in volume and ferocity as his papacy has continued, critics of the Pope, particularly here in the English-speaking world, have gone from gentle nudges based on their preferences to what can only be described as schism-baiting. From the “papal posse” expressing concerns about the Synod on the Family and then Amoris Laetitia, to the publication of the “Dubia” and ultimately calls for the pope to resign, papal critics on this continent have become buzzing bees of disagreement; everything emanating from Francis’s Vatican is an opportunity for correction. And now he is a decade deep into a papacy these detractors hoped wouldn’t last this long.
While the papal critics may be noisy in certain corners, the average Catholic in America may not have heard much from them at all. The website you’re reading has done a great job documenting and pushing back against the Pope’s more savvy and cynical critics since its formation. But the person in the pew may not be aware of some, or any, of these very jargon-laced, idiosyncratic controversies. That is often true in the Catholic world, as it is with organized religion in general in America these days: there is frequently a disconnect between those who know their catechism front to back and those who prefer to keep their Catholicism limited to Sundays, Christmas, and Easter—the average English-speaking, North American Catholic, if you will.
So, what of them? What does your average pew-sitting Catholic think of Pope Francis ten years into his papacy? What do the average Catholic’s friends, some of whom might be considered Catholic-adjacent or various degrees of “ex-Catholic,” think of Pope Francis? The answers to these questions are often missed by the insiders and ignored by the researchers who could shed some light on them. I’d like to offer my own thoughts as I survey the landscape of opinions of this group of average Catholics.
“If Pope Francis can’t fix this, I don’t know what will.”
It was at a diocesan fundraising planning meeting last July that I heard a parish priest bring Pope Francis’s name into the conversation out of the blue. He bemoaned his lack of fundraising abilities and pointed to the reality with which we northeastern Catholics are so familiar: diminishing Church attendance consisting of mainly grey-haired parishioners. This Pastor said he looks out on his Sunday congregation and doesn’t see it existing much longer than twenty more years. Then he mentioned the pontiff: “If Pope Francis can’t fix this, I don’t know what will.” There were other fish to fry on this balmy summer afternoon so the assembled clergy and lay employees of the Diocese didn’t give the familiar comment any additional attention.
Part of my soul gawked. Do you expect your average churchgoer in suburban upstate New York to follow the reflections of Pope Francis on a regular basis? On the drive home from work that day I pondered how such a mindset—believing that a far-off Bishop of Rome can save my parish—could exist. But not only did I realize that this way of thinking was common among those invested in the lives of parishes in America, but I realized it harkened back to the first American perceptions of the Argentine Pope.
Those early days of Pope Francis’ papacy were filled with this kind of optimism. A humble, service-oriented head of the Catholic Church could do nothing but good for an American Catholic Church continually beset by diminishing numbers and its own ongoing self-inflicted wounds from the sex abuse crisis. Those early years made clergy and laypeople alike believe that a good old-fashioned public persona makeover was coming from the new Latin American leadership in the Vatican. But that narrative was so brittle it was bound to break almost immediately. And break it did.
Here in the United States, friction with what is being handed down from Rome is a feature, not a bug. High-ranking churchmen certainly skewed supportive of the papacy during the long reign of Pope John Paul II and his immediate successor, but even in those days there seemed to be a cultural gap that both sides struggled to bridge. American Catholics are not spared from the dangers of the experimental laboratory that Christianity in America has been from the beginning. A survey of the efforts of the apostolic nuncios to the United States going back a century would reveal this tension, and the cultural gap makes itself felt at the parish level, too. I’ve noticed that there is always ambivalence among laypeople: Do we want a more pious Church? Do we want a more service-oriented Church? Both, right? We all want a more welcoming Church, but whom do we welcome, and how? And, of course, the question to end all questions about parish life in America today: How do we stem the tide of decreasing Church attendance?
A Message Overshadowed by Abuse
Pope Francis’ papacy, at its most prophetic, has answered these questions, both as regards parish life and in the structure of the hierarchy. But a papacy is rarely made by only what it preaches. The example of its leadership demands willing, capable messengers. We have seen and heard these messengers in the United States. But beyond the papal preaching and message, other matters have necessarily preoccupied everyday American Catholics over the course of the past decade.
As Francis’ papacy crossed the five-year mark, one of the worst years in American Catholic history unfolded as the clerical sexual abuse crisis entered a new chapter. In June 2018, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was removed from public ministry following allegations of sexual abuse which would prove to be a pattern. Later, in July 2018, he became the first modern cardinal to resign from the College of Cardinals (he would be laicized the following year, the highest-ranking American prelate ever to be penalized by laicization). Around the same time, in late July 2018, the Pennsylvania grand jury report into sexual abuse in six dioceses was released, revealing hundreds more cases than had been previously thought. On the heels of these events, the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, released “Testimony” calling into question Francis’s own knowledge of McCarrick’s abuse and earned the support of several American bishops in demanding answers. This, in turn, divided Catholics.
This “Year of Shame” was a moment that broke into the world of the everyday Catholic. By 2018, many American Catholics could have been fooled into thinking that the clerical sexual abuse crisis was over. Many were aware of the actions taken, beginning in 2002 with the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, to prevent and protect children from abuse. The Year of Shame removed any doubt for the average North American Catholic that sex abuse was a deeply rooted problem that demanded a continued response. In 2020, the Vatican’s own McCarrick Report revealed that credible allegations of his abuse of seminarians going back decades were disbelieved by St. John Paul II and only earned a private response from Pope Benedict XVI.
The re-igniting of the abuse crisis had the effect of demystifying the new Pope, who could be seen as responsible for it all. He had brought new ways of doing things, but he remained the head of an institution so riddled with revolting sin that his hopeful and progressive credentials faded into the background.
Steps Forward, and Back Again
As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world in March 2020, Pope Francis had an opportunity to show spiritual and moral leadership in the world. Standing against the general apocalyptic atmosphere with an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi message and blessing during the darkest days of the early pandemic, the perception of the Pope on this continent saw a brief revival. Later, Francis responded deftly to Catholic vaccine opponents who looked to make it a new front in the culture wars (including a not-insignificant group of clerics once again), instead extolling collective efforts against the virus, offering clear teaching from the Vatican as to the liceity of vaccination, and calling getting vaccinated an “act of love.”
Global efforts against the virus fit so neatly into the messaging of Pope Francis that he seemed more prepared for the moment than most political leaders at the time. But in May 2021, this resurgence of his positive image hit a brick wall when hundreds of human remains were found in a mass grave at a former Indigenous school in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. This reignited a longstanding grievance among the native peoples of Canada, whose abuse and cultural genocide inside indigenous schools largely run by Catholic orders (of both men and women religious) only concluded in the early 1990s. The rage was so fierce that church arsons in Western Canada suddenly spiked.
Pope Francis responded by making the most full-throated apology on behalf of the Catholic Church in papal history. He later traveled to apologize again on Canadian soil in 2022 at the request of the Canadian Bishops and the Canadian government’s Reconciliation Commission. For the everyday Catholic, however, the damage was already done and the current Pope, no matter how progressive or conservative he may seem, was still just the head of the Church of historical villains.
Laying the Cornerstone for his Legacy
But as the ten-year anniversary of his papacy approached and his resignation was nowhere to be found, Francis turned with diligence towards what he clearly believes will be his most important legacy. The Synod on Synodality is the pinnacle of the “Listening Church” Francis had envisioned in his first apostolic exhortation in 2013. By 2022, the institutional reforms he called for in that first document were accomplished to some degree by his new apostolic constitution reorganizing the Roman Curia. Now, looking to amplify the voice of the everyday Catholic, listening sessions down to parish and diocesan levels unfolded across the world. This multi-year process has now entered its continental phase; it will reach the Vatican itself this coming autumn. Just like his vigil in the empty St. Peter’s Square at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Synod on Synodality stands to become emblematic of everything this Pope hopes to change about the Catholic Church.
Though it is yet to be seen what impact it will have on the universal Church, early results from the local phases of the last two years of the Synod show exactly what your average pew-bound Catholic might bring up in such a listening session, harkening back to those commonplace questions: Do we want a more service-oriented Church? We all want a more welcoming Church, but whom do we welcome? How do we stem the tide of decreasing Church attendance? The typical Catholic doesn’t need to venture too deep into the news from Rome to discover another massive turning point on the horizon in upcoming Vatican-level sessions of the Synod this autumn.
At ten years into his papacy Pope Francis is, for many everyday Catholics on this continent, still the Pope with untapped potential. Not since the short-lived Pope John Paul I has there been such a groundswell of belief that change is possible because of a single Bishop of Rome—and this one has already been at it for a decade! How realistic those expectations are about controversial questions or social issues is another possible disconnect, however. For others, Pope Francis has become another Pope of the fundamentally corrupt and abusive Catholic Church.
Perhaps the analysis of this pope, whether his remaining years on the Chair of St. Peter are long or short, will turn on how he handles his children during and after the Synod on Synodality. Social issues, tinged with the institutional distrust resulting from the sex abuse crisis and other self-inflicted wounds of the hierarchy, are going to be top of mind for everyday Catholics in the US. For that typical Catholic, the one who doesn’t follow the daily Catholic news and for whom the subtleties of theology and Church history don’t have quite the same importance, it will be all too easy to only see the Synod through a political lens. The “conservative” wing, at least in the English-speaking world, is more bent on his demise than ever before, ready to call in a five-alarm fire should Francis seem to break with tradition. Meanwhile, for the “progressive” wing, seeing the incremental change and focus on the marginalized from the Vatican, there is a thirst for something truly revolutionary that might make the Gospel message more credible. How Francis responds will speak volumes.
It is hard to share the discontent that some of my coreligionists, both progressive and conservative, have with Pope Francis. I have grown up against the backdrop of jokes about pedophile priests, and although I’ve seen great progress at the local level in dealing with abuse, there still seems to be a substantial problem to be solved. I’ve had to come to terms with how my Americanness sometimes gets in the way of my Catholicism. That has helped me greatly in understanding and embracing Pope Francis.
I also know that revivals start from the bottom up. That is what I dream of: a revival that brings family and friends back to the Church which has shown me the face of Christ in the poor and enriched me spiritually. It fills my soul with sadness that it’s hard to imagine such a revival on these shores. And yet, I trust that God may provide one. Recent comments seem to show Pope Francis is less interested in resigning like his predecessor than previously thought, so he may yet lead us to such a revival. Only in God’s good time will we truly know. In the meantime, this average Catholic turned wonkish religion nerd will pray for the successor of St. Peter.