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Pope Francis Brings New Hope to Maryland's Catholic Faithful

Maryland church leaders say members left the church because of an increasingly secular society, while Catholic parishioners praise the new pope's outreach and focus on people.

Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas. File | Patch
Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas. File | Patch
By Jason Ruiter
Capital News Service

The Maryland Catholic Church lost more than 100,000 members between 2000 and 2010 according to the U.S. Religion Census, but a more direct and humble approach by Pope Francis is leading many to believe he may help re-energize the faithful.

“I would say the majority are thrilled by Pope Francis,” said Katie Erskine, a 22-year-old youth minister at St. Louis Church in Clarksville. “The vast majority are proud to be Catholic again.”

In an unusual move, the pope recently sent out a survey to Catholic families asking -- among other questions -- about their feelings towards same-sex marriage. He’s also said the church is “obsessed” with gays and abortion and said, “who am I to judge (homosexuals)?”

Like the U.S. president, the pope is head of a vast and complex bureaucracy which requires immense political aptitude. Unlike the president, the pontiff is also in charge of more than one billion souls -- a position that implies immense power -- but Pope Francis has approached the solemn task with an everyman’s piety and a monk’s simplicity.

Speaking recently on stage in St. Peter’s Square in front of thousands, the pope was interrupted by a young boy who refused to leave the stage. Pope Francis simply accepted his presence, patting him on the head with a grandfatherly smile and even letting him sit in his chair.

Nearly eight in 10 Catholics have a favorable view of the pope, with only 4 percent unfavorable, according to a Pew Research Center poll published in September.

“Certainly as a pastor, he’s shown me that old adage that you gain more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” said the Rev. Monsignor Joseph Luca of St. Louis Church in Clarksville, whose church membership has been growing.

“Our community has been really energized,” Luca said. “I mention something about him, or quote him in a sermon, they perk up, because he is really this charismatic person.”

But with political polarization at record highs, the pope’s comments on gays and abortion could alienate some Catholics.

Tom Trunk, a lifelong Catholic, has stood outside abortion clinics in Maryland holding pro-life signs and handing out literature nearly every week for the past 14 years. He said that if the pope’s comments bring in Catholics who are of a more liberal mindset, it would be a benefit.

Erskine, a recent graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said the pope has pushed her outside her comfort zone with his comments.

“I paid a lot of attention and read really closely when he made (comments about homosexuals),” Erskine said. “I did mull over what he said for a long time (and) I’ve come to agree with what he said. I think what he said was that the love of God should be first.”

Maryland Church leaders interviewed for this article blamed the loss of Catholics in the state on secularism, not an out-of-touch image.

“I think it’s more acceptable nowadays to be non-religious in many circles … It’s not sophisticated to be anti-Semitic, but it is to be anti-Catholic, that’s part of the trend which is sliding down the secular side,” said Rev. Monsignor James M. Cafone, an assistant professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. 

The total number of Catholics in Maryland in 2010 -- 837,338 -- is a few thousand more than the number of Catholics in 1990. Between those years, the state’s population has increased by about 400,000.

“All the negative press that the (Catholic) church has gotten, those problems of sex abuse, plus what the world sees as rigid views on social teachings -- or moral teachings -- I should say… I do think that all those issues had an effect on people not practicing their faith,” said Rev. Mark Hughes of Holy Redeemer in Kensington. “But I think the main issue is that people are comfortable in a material age.”

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