A recent Pew Research poll shows that not only is Pope Francis popular among American Catholics, but perhaps more importantly, among the “nones” (those people not identifying with any religion). This is an opportunity for the local Church. While this interpretation is not addressed in this research, I would suggest that Pope Francis has changed the dialogue for Catholicism today. While doctrine hasn’t changed, the approach has.
To begin with, the Holy Father encourages dialogue, rather than the monologue that his two immediate predecessors seemed to engender. This is the first opportunity for parishes throughout the country. We can really only take advantage of this opening at the local level. Parish communities should be building on the Pope’s approach to invite a broader community into conversation. This conversation with the unchurched will lead to conversions from among their ranks.
More important than the openness the Pope is advancing is his focus. Despite not changing doctrine, from the taking of his name he has shone a bright light of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. He has been in one way or the other saying that regardless of how important the various inflammatory “morality” questions are, there is no more primary question than how do we treat the least of our brothers and sisters. And this, paired with an openness to conversation, is a very powerful evangelization opportunity.
A while back I highlighted the book Rebuilt. One of the foundational points that those authors make is that it is not the responsibility of a parish to serve the customers that are parishioners; rather the mission is to strengthen parishioners for discipleship and evangelization. The Sunday mass should be the beginning of the week, not an isolated hour within it. From the communion with the Risen Lord, we should be renewed for our efforts as disciples in the world. If our parishes commit to our charge and go out as Catholic Christians, serving the poor, we will be preaching as both the Holy Father and his namesake would have us.
Combining service and dialogue would be a very powerful force to grow and enliven our church.