When I joined the Catholic Church in 2006, Benedict XVI was Pope. In some circles (especially the secular U.S. media), he had a reputation as a cold fish, an unfeeling intellectual who cared more for tradition and the law than for actual human beings. To me, he seemed to be a rock of sanity and reason in the midst of chaos – a shelter against the storms of our highly emotional, passion-driven culture. Without Pope Benedict’s wise leadership, I doubt I would have become Catholic at all.
Imagine my surprise when just six years later, Benedict announced he was stepping down. I was crushed. Like every other Catholic, I waited anxiously for news of his replacement. When Pope Francis was introduced to the world, I wasn’t the only one to note that in style, if not substance, he seemed to be Benedict’s opposite – effusively emotional, willing to dispense with tradition and bend the rules when needed, and much more comfortable among simple, ordinary folk than the intellectual elite.
Clearly, change was in the air.
More than two years later, Francis has made a name for himself by transforming the Church in the eyes of much of the world. Although the majority of Francis’ changes have been merely cosmetic (one man cannot reinvent a 2,000 year old institution, and the world is better for it), the secular world and many cradle Catholics have fallen head over heels for the man they believe is singlehandedly dragging the Church into the modern age.
But what about those who entered the Faith under Benedict? Do they feel like victims of a “bait-and-switch” scheme? Or are they embracing Francis and his fresh approach? What do “new-ish” converts like me think of our “new-ish” pope? In order to find out, I asked a few.
Scott Bradford, 32, converted to Catholicism from the United Methodist Church with his wife in 2009. When Pope Benedict stepped down, “I was surprised, to say the least!” Bradford said. “My wife and I had been Catholics for a few years already, but we still felt like ‘newbies,’ and so it was felt to us like a huge change was about to happen. We hadn’t even been through a pastor change as Catholics yet, and now we were going to go through a pope change!”
When Francis was announced as pope, Bradford said he was pleased with the Cardinals for making an “outside of the box” decision and impressed with Francis’ humility. “I have nothing against the ‘pomp’ of the papacy, but Pope Francis’s decision to skip a lot of that has resonated with many people who would normally take a very cynical look at the faith,” Bradford said. “I see so many people on my Facebook wall saying things like, ‘I’m not Catholic, but I really like this pope!’ He has been an absolutely amazing evangelist for the faith.”
“I suspect that many people who dismissed the church before are taking a more serious look at it now because they see how Pope Francis lives his faith,” Bradford added. “It may take years for that to bear the fruit of conversion, but it’s a start.”
Bradford said he counts himself among those concerned that the secular media’s enthusiastic but often inaccurate coverage of Francis’s statements will confuse outsiders into believing that Catholic doctrine on controversial social issues has changed.
“I wish that Pope Francis would do more to counter that sort of thing (like the media trying to claim he’s okay with divorce and gay marriage and so on),” Bradford said. At the same time, he understands that the Pope “has to walk a fine line between speaking the truth and unnecessarily alienating people, including the media … If he is too harsh on the media’s slant, he could lose a valuable channel that he is using to reach people who he might otherwise have been unable to speak to.”
Ultimately, Bradford said, “it’s an exciting time to be a Catholic. We are facing lots of challenges, very serious ones, but, in large part thanks to Pope Francis, we are also reaching people like I’ve never seen in my lifetime. It’s easy to be pessimistic when we see society careening away from the truth, but we need to have faith and persevere.”
Alexandra Greeley, of Virginia, joined the Church in 2008. She said that while she was largely attracted to the Faith by Pope Benedict’s formal, reverent approach to spirituality, she thinks the differences between Benedict and Francis come down mostly to temperament.
“The appeal of Catholicism and Benedict was the obvious reverence for liturgical tradition and for God, something totally lacking in the Protestant churches,” said Greeley, who especially loves the Latin Mass. “Whereas Benedict is a thoughtful scholar, Francis clearly is a much more outgoing man and seems to stay on the true liturgical course.” Greeley said that although she lives in the suburbs of D.C. and would love to see Pope Francis in person, she is heeding the advice of local authorities to avoid the crowd downtown this week.
John C. Wright, a science fiction and fantasy author and former atheist who joined the Catholic Church in 2008, said Pope Francis’ leadership delights him.
“I believe the Holy Spirit Himself must have prompted Pope Benedict to retire, something that has not been done in centuries, to make way for this next man,” Wright said.
Like Bradford, however, he said he was distrustful of the secular media’s portrayal of the pope as a radical change agent. “Each time [the media] quoted something that sounded extraordinary, and I took the time to trace the comment back to its original source, I found that, in context, the Holy Father’s comment was entirely orthodox, and entirely in keeping with the traditional teaching of the Mother Church since time immemorial,” Wright said. “Why the Good Lord has decided to arrange to have the press, our natural enemy and the enemy of the faith, be charmed and pleased by this Pope, I have no idea,” he added.“God’s ways are not our ways. What shall come of it, not even the wise can foresee.”
Valerie Fesh, of Birmingham, AL, joined the Church in 2005, just a week before Benedict XVI became Pope. Having come into the church under Pope John Paul II and grown up in it during Benedict’s reign, she said Francis strikes her as an “amazing hybrid” of the former’s “pastoral style and charismatic persona” and the latter’s “quiet humble faith.” She said she hopes his visit to the U.S. will inspire a resurgence of faith and virtue in Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“I would love for [Pope Francis’s] visit to inspire Catholics across the country toward a more deep faith, influence those who are fallen away from the Church to come home (or consider coming home), and influence those who lead our country (both politicians and our own clergy and religious) to reexamine how they are leading and whether or not what they are doing is truly in the best interests of those they are supposed to be leading,” Fesh said. “I hope his visit inspires our civic leaders to make more Christ-like decisions with regard to the laws they make so that those laws respect the life and dignity of every human being. I hope his visit inspires our bishops, priests, and religious to preach and teach the Gospel with boldness and that it strengthens them in their vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
Fesh admits that her wish list is a pretty tall order, but she remains optimistic nonetheless.
“I know those are big hopes,” Fesh said, “but who am I to put limits on God?”