SEATTLE – In November, the priest at Assumption Catholic Church in North Seattle mailed a letter of welcome to parishioners, including members long dormant – those divorced and remarried, gay, tired or simply disillusioned.
“We are living in exciting times,” the Rev. Oliver Duggan told them. “Our church, which so many had written off as not relevant in this time and age, has suddenly come to life.”
For this he credited Pope Francis for not only inspiring his own pastoral work but for breathing new life into the Roman Catholic Church. While the new pontiff hasn’t changed church teachings, the priest wrote, “he has been applying those teachings in a loving and caring way.”
A year after Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica to present himself to the world as Pope Francis, Duggan’s words stand as testament for many – Catholics and non-Catholics – who believe this “people’s pope” has shifted the tone and softened the image of the 1.2 billion-member church.
To be sure, the pontiff’s actions and remarks in his inaugural year – from challenging trickle-down economic theories, to reforming Vatican bureaucracy, to urging church leaders to stop their obsessions over hot-button social issues – have done nothing to change doctrine.
Francis still says “no,” but in a kinder, gentler way, to some of the church’s more complicated and thorny issues around reproductive rights, sexuality, married priests and women’s role in the church – issues especially polarizing in the American Catholic church.
Just this month, while still maintaining the church’s firm position on marriage, he called on its leaders to explore how civil unions might provide health care and economic benefits for same-sex couples.
“I don’t believe he will change doctrine; that won’t happen,” said Sharon Hanses, 79, a lifelong Catholic and member of St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima.
“But I do believe he’s changing hearts.”
Almost from the start, the Argentine and first Jesuit pope grabbed the world’s attention for being the most relatable in modern history: tooling about Vatican City in a 30-year-old Renault, washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with visitors to the Vatican.
Francis eschewed the spacious apartments of his predecessors to live instead in a small suite in a Vatican guesthouse.
Named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 2013, as well as Man of the Year for the LGBT magazine The Advocate, he is hailed as the most influential world leader on Twitter, with more than 3.7 million followers, and is the most talked-about person on the Internet.
The first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, Francis has made strong pronouncements about income inequality and treatment of the poor.
He has spoken out against careerism in the church and the Vatican, and called for a “synod on the Family” this fall after ordering a survey of Catholics on a range of social issues.
Perhaps the most quoted words of his papacy – “Who am I to judge?” – have given hope to gay Catholics alienated by the church.
“Personally, I think he’s a saint,” said Stephen Dofelmier of the pope. Dofelmier grew up in the church, left after getting a divorce but returned to Assumption after receiving Duggan’s letter.
Even after his first marriage was annulled by the church and his second marriage recognized by the church 10 years ago, Dofelmier said he still didn’t feel comfortable going back, given the continued hard line on a range of matters.
Duggan’s letter, he said, re-energized him and allowed him to see that change was possible – not just in liturgy but around the idea of being a good Christian.
“I feel like I’m coming back to a kinder church,” Dofelmier said. “I admire this pope, particularly his humanness.”
Yet for all the good feelings Francis’ papacy is generating, some say the pope has failed to fully address some of the deep conflicts within the church.
The new pope, they say, has rarely spoken out about priest sex abuse, and three months after Francis created a commission of experts to study the best ways to protect children, no members have been appointed and no action taken.
While his polling numbers far surpass those of the church he leads, in some cases reaching levels that would make him the envy of politicians, none of it appears to be bringing members back to the pews, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Others prefer to believe that Francis is laying the foundation for changes yet to come, including his recent appointment of 19 new cardinals – all from throughout the developing world.
The Catholic Church is global, they point out, with members hailing from cultures where addressing crippling poverty is a greater priority than some of the concerns in the West.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a devout Catholic who went outside the church last summer to marry his longtime partner, said Francis offers “hope of a church once again committed to the poorest among us.”