C21 Panel Discusses Impact of Pope Francis’ Visit

by Lily Bessette


On October 15, 2015, the Church in the 21st Century Center hosted an event concerning the future after Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. The moderator of the panel discussion was Thomas Groome, Director of the C21 Center. The panel was comprised of Steve Pope, Ken Himes, and Catherine Cornille.


The discussion began with an introduction by Thomas Groome. He announced that Pope Francis’ election was a new paradigm that brought  a “sense of a new day in both style and substance.” Groome says that Pope Francis has “lifted the embargo on conversation” and has been raising many questions, some of which concern cohabitation before marriage and LGBT rights in spirituality.

Steve Pope has written several books and is a professor in Boston College’s Theology Department. Steve Pope is impressed by the Pope’s style, charisma, and genuine Christian character. Pope Francis’ piety, teaching, and actions are reflections of his understanding of mercy. Pope Francis “wants us to realize that we are recipients of God’s love,” said Steve Pope. For the Pope, the Gospel really means Good News because it means “we don’t need to earn our worth.” He also commented on how the Pope’s style is “affective rather than cognitive or abstract.” The ethic of accompaniment that Pope Francis practices is “walking the way with others, he is not ahead or behind the others, but fully with them.” The Church is a place for dialogue and empowerment and is not and should not be a top-down institution.  


Next, Ken Himes, a Franciscan priest and associate professor in Boston College’s Theology Department, started by introducing three topics: “the risks of celebrity culture, the spiritual culture of response, and the separation of person of papacy and the office of papacy.” He explained that being a celebrity means someone is famous for being famous, giving the example of the Kardashians. The media argues that they only report the news rather than make the news, but Himes argues that this is not true because the news is dependent on the media’s choices. During the Pope’s visit there was so much coverage throughout the media that the story of the Pope’s visit became focused on his fame instead of his character. Himes says that he doesn’t “want a pope who is in competition for attention with Caitlyn Jenner.”


Many Americans report being spiritual, but not religious. Himes poses this question: “Why do Catholic adults have such a hard time finding a parish to call home?” Himes is “unconvinced that churches now aren’t any more prepared to fill spiritual hunger than churches before.” Himes states that “there is a spiritual hunger and energy out there, but can the Church satisfy this hunger and channel this energy?”


Himes explained that Pope Francis is shaping the papal office and how it should be for the future. He says that changes include renewed faithfulness to the poor and promoting overall openness in the Church. A main concern is that these changes the Pope has made will fade once Pope Francis is no longer pope.


Finally, Catherine Cornille, the Newton College Alumnae Chair of Western Culture, professor in Boston College’s Theology Department, spoke about how the Pope has an “openness to other religions” and “attaches a lot of importance in example and in teachings.” The Pope washed the feet of a Muslim girl, prayed at the waiting wall with Jewish people, and made an unplanned entrance into a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Cornille is very interested in the Church’s focus on dialogue with other religions. She spoke about the prayer meeting of multiple religions at Ground Zero, the Pope’s condolences to the Muslim people for a tragedy at Mecca that claimed lives of many pilgrims, and the Pope’s unprompted blessing of the statue that symbolizes and celebrates the unity of the Catholic-Jewish faith at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Cornille argues that the “interreligious friendship shown in [Pope Francis’] personal life is the basis for the inter-dialogue of the Catholic Church with other religions.”


The panel ended with a discussion about whether these sentiments of openness, opportunity, and optimism, like the excitement after the Second Vatican Council, will last. Thomas Groome began to answer the question “will it last?” by saying that Pope Francis will be “a difficult act to follow, but for someone to come in and go back on progress is ludicrous.” Steve Pope believes that progress “will last more deeply as the Pope lives and as more bishops are appointed that are both good and attractive of more good priests.” Catherine Cornille explained that the thirst for spiritual models of wisdom and depth is fulfilled by the spiritual exemplar of the Pope. Cornille concludes, “The continuity of the Church will depend on the formation of more people with this charisma and intelligence.”

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