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The Promise of Francis

The new pope has gotten worldwide attention with a dramatically different message. But for Boston Catholics who have drifted for more than a decade, will it be enough to bring them back?

Patrik Svensson

ON A DECEMBER DAY in 2002, the Rev. Walter Cuenin sat in front of a computer, staring at an e-mail he had spent a good deal of time crafting. Cuenin was the popular pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, a vibrant, 12,000-strong parish overlooking the Mass. Pike in Newton, though on this afternoon he was working from a priest friend’s church office a few miles away. The contents of the e-mail were extraordinary. Signed by Catholic priests from around the Boston Archdiocese, the three-paragraph letter called for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, the white-haired, stern-faced symbol of American power in the rigid hierarchy of the Roman church, and the man they had vowed to obey. “The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader,” the letter read.

Cuenin and a few fellow priests had organized this revolt from the ranks, and they knew they were about to do something unprecedented in the American Catholic Church. Seeking strength in numbers, they agreed they wouldn’t move forward until they’d recruited at least 50 priests to sign on. Now they had 58, and the e-mail to fellow priests made it official, putting in motion a plan to hand-deliver a formal letter to the cardinal’s residence the following day.


As Cuenin hit “send,” he was surprised to realize he had tears in his eyes.

They were not tears of fear. Cuenin wasn’t blind to the sometimes brutish impulses of the Vatican and its powerful princes, but he had already done plenty to stoke their anger and always managed to survive. He had called for open discussion of bedrock church positions against the ordination of women and married men. He had adopted an accepting approach to divorced Catholics and gays and lesbians. He had even gone so far as to provide testimony to the state Legislature against a bill that would have defined marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman. Perhaps even more provocative, he had withheld the affluent parish’s usual contribution to help cover the expenses of the cardinal’s office and gave his flock permission to ignore the cardinal’s Annual Appeal and instead direct its personal donations to Catholic Charities.


He had done all this on behalf of his parishioners to protest the sins of the cardinal and other church leaders. To prevent the scourge of clergy sex abuse from coming to light, those leaders had knowingly shuffled around pedophile priests from parish to parish, allowing them to prey on vulnerable children. After those sins had been revealed in the pages of the Globe early in 2002, lay Catholics reacted with disgust, outrage, and no small number of defections. Yet Cuenin had continued to pack parishioners into the pews at Our Lady each weekend, in part by exhorting the laity to take back its church.

The Rev. Walter Cuenin is awed by how quickly Francis has generated new hope among the faithful.Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

Nor were these tears of doubt that Cuenin was shedding. He knew Law had to go. Still, he had entered the seminary basically as a boy, fresh out of high school. When he’d been ordained, he’d knelt at the feet of a different prince of the church and pledged obedience. Now, just a few days after celebrating his 57th birthday, Cuenin was leading the equivalent of a palace insurrection. “It was so contrary to the way we were trained,” he says. “It was very, very painful.”


Four days after the delivery of the letter, Law resigned.

Cuenin pushed on. Working with the lay group Voice of the Faithful and like-minded priests, he advocated structural change in the church and tried to revive the spirit and sense of possibility that so many Catholics had felt during the Vatican II era three decades earlier. The goal was to combat the excessive deference the church hierarchy expected from laypeople. This so-called clericalism had nurtured the culture of arrogance that was personified by Law, a Harvard graduate who seemed rather to enjoy being addressed as “Your Eminence.” Cuenin, in contrast, preferred to be called Walter.

Yet, after a lot of early momentum, Voice of the Faithful hit a wall of intransigence from church leadership. Then, in the fall of 2005, the archdiocese forced Cuenin out as pastor of Our Lady, a post he had held for a dozen years, and replaced him with the priest who had served as Law’s mouthpiece during the sex abuse crisis. The official explanation was that Cuenin had violated archdiocesan rules by accepting from the parish a leased Honda Accord and a modest supplemental stipend. Most sentient Catholics saw his ouster as smoke-and-mirrors revenge by holdover Law aides advising Sean P. O’Malley, the new archbishop. After having successfully led one of the area’s largest and most thriving parishes, Cuenin soon ended up as Catholic chaplain at Brandeis University, a secular but Jewish-sponsored institution. Cuenin made the best of the move, quipping, “The church got rid of me but the Jews took me in.” The message was clear, though: No matter how compromised its state, church leadership will always resist meaningful reform. The house will always win.


One year ago this month, Pope Benedict XVI, whose idea of reform sometimes felt like a return to the uncomplicated days before the Council of Trent in the 16th century, found the grace to do something truly forward-thinking. Saying that his advanced age and deteriorating strength would prevent him from meeting the demands of running an ailing church of 1.2 billion souls, he stepped down. In March, the smoke rose and Pope Francis appeared on the balcony, signaling in his first remarks a new era of humility. “Pray for me” was his request to the throngs in St. Peter’s Square.

Sitting in his small office at Brandeis a few weeks ago, Cuenin tells me he still can’t believe how quickly the new pontiff has injected hope into the church by opening its doors and windows. “Everything he’s done so far has been phenomenal.”

Cuenin concedes that most of the changes made as yet by the smiling, unpretentious pastor from South America have been in tone rather than teachings, and much remains to be seen. Still, he says, “they’re symbolic things, but they’re not minor.” And for a religion built on symbolism, there is real meaning there.

For so many Catholics appalled by the way church leaders valued secrecy over the safety of the most vulnerable members of their flock, the decision during the past decade to remain in the pews has required some level of cognitive dissonance. There was the Vatican, and then there was what was happening in your own parish or in your own heart. Often, the two felt separated by a lot more than the Atlantic.


What does it mean, then, when you suddenly find that the white-capped leader in Rome, whose English is halting at best, seems to speaking for you? After all the frustration and all the fury with the church, how can you tell if this change is real?


GROWING UP in a big Catholic family, I almost never missed a Sunday Mass, though my family and I seldom went to the same church two weeks in a row. Getting a parade of seven people through a single shower and out the door in the morning was never easy. So when my dad backed the station wagon out of our driveway in Somerset, he’d head in the direction of whichever Mass we happened to be the least late for: the 11 o’clock at St. Louis de France, the 11:30 at St. Thomas More, or the acoustic-guitar-strumming noon folk Mass at St. Patrick’s. (If we blew them all, we’d wait until the evening and cross the bridge to St. Anne’s in Fall River for the 6:30.)

As faith-filled as my parents were, they were always critical Catholics. They were both educators who worked with needy students. My dad was a counselor for troubled high school kids who didn’t have much in the world and who were forever calling our house in search of after-hours help. He had a particularly low tolerance for priests who would waste time delivering a soulless homily about the bishop’s latest fund-raising appeal. There were so many important issues to discuss, so much real ministry to be done. A recurring experience for me and my siblings was being forced to cool our heels on the church steps after Mass, rolling our eyes in adolescent exasperation as one person or another approached our parents for counseling or just some advice — or occasionally Dad approached the priest to buttonhole him about his sermon.

He and my mother wanted — and expected — more from their church.

After the clergy sex abuse revelations, I saw my parents go through the kind of deep crisis of confidence in their church that many Catholics experienced. My wife, who is from a culturally Jewish family, and I were already in the process of finding our own interfaith path for our family, trying to pull out the best from our respective traditions. But I saw some of my siblings who had married fellow Catholics drift from the church. For a time, I wondered if my parents might do the same.

Ultimately, they decided to stay, but they have done so with even less tolerance for tone-deaf spiritual leadership than before. They focus on the compassion and social justice in Jesus’ teachings. Together, they make their rounds to visit the infirm and lonely in nursing homes. Every Saturday morning, my dad volunteers at the food pantry run out of the basement of St. Anne’s, that same cavernous church in Fall River that had served as our refuge on days of extreme tardiness. One weekend a couple of years ago, I visited my dad at the pantry and marveled at how he worked the line. For hours, he made his way up and down the long queue that snaked around the church basement, shaking hands with newcomers, hugging the regulars and asking after others in their family, and handing out candy he’d brought from home to make every kid there feel special. Through his compassion, charisma, and humility, he took what might otherwise have been a depressing, even embarrassing situation for people down on their luck — having to line up for boxes of pasta and cereal — and gave them something to smile or laugh about. Likewise, they nourished him. Everyone seemed to leave that basement feeling a little bit more hopeful about the world.

It was just human connecting to human. I remember thinking to myself: If it’s so obvious to my parents that this is what it means to live their Catholic faith, why is so hard for detached church leaders to grasp that?

Then along comes Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Before blessing the people packed into St. Peter’s, he asks them to pray for him. The new pope goes to the inn where he’d been staying during the cardinals’ conclave, and he personally pays his bill. He eschews the luxurious papal apartments and moves instead into a small guesthouse in Vatican City. That move allows him to live modestly and gives him access to real people instead of keeping him walled off deep inside the Vatican, as cloistered as Maria in the abbey. He skips the fancy shoes and the fancy ermine-trimmed cape and the fancy car, opting instead for a sensible sedan. He washes the feet of juvenile delinquents and hugs and kisses a 53-year-old man with a disfigured, sore-covered face.

He calls for an end to the “psychology of princes” and the “cancer” of careerism within the priesthood and church hierarchy, which he says can eat away at priests’ effectiveness and moral authority. And he confides that he knows of what he speaks, admitting to the grave mistakes he made early on in his career, when he was inexperienced and perhaps too focused on obeying his superiors and expecting obedience from the priests he led. He cuts way back on the use of the monsignor title, an exalted honorific that has too often been used to reward priests more adept at feeding the coffers of the archdiocese than the souls of the parishioners. He is a Jesuit who has chosen to live his life modestly, so none of his moves seems the least bit inauthentic. But he also must know it is brilliant strategy. If he can resist the trappings of being pope — which, let’s face it, is the ultimate red-rope line of life — how is some overfed functionary in Rome or monsignor in Milwaukee going to get away with arguing that his position requires him to have an opulent residence and chauffeured luxury car?

He signals no inclination to change church teachings on female priests or celibacy or homosexuality, but he conveys a Holy See change of tone with the simple phrase “Who am I to judge?” He dislodges from the influential Congregation of Bishops one of the most right-wing American cardinals, Raymond Burke of St. Louis, who had refused communion to abortion-rights politicians and complained that moderate bishops who refused to follow his lead were “weakening the faith.” And he replaces him with one of the moderates Burke had complained about.

Antiabortion activist Catholics should have no fear that Francis will change the church’s stance on abortion. (O’Malley told the Globe this month that he doesn’t see the pope as changing church doctrine on this or other issues.) Still, the new pope has made it clear that the church has spent way too much time focusing on a narrow band of hot-button social issues rather than the overarching, corrosive problem of the world’s yawning inequality, between rich and poor, north and south. He pulls no punches, saying the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. Let Rush Limbaugh call him a Marxist. This pope has a refreshing candor, right down to his frequent use of the word “poor.” It’s worth noting that most politicians have scrubbed that word from their vocabulary, seeming to believe that if they say anything other than “middle class,” they will suffer an electric shock by some invisible focus-group-controlled zapper.

Is it any wonder why my parents love this guy? But it’s not just them. The widows at the 8 o’clock morning Mass love him, because he’s a walking global billboard for the spirit of Catholicism that has kept them returning to the pews all their lives. The lapsed Catholics — whose number would qualify them as the second largest denomination in the country, after active Catholics — love him for his break from the lecturing tone of the past and his refreshing willingness to engage and listen. Even my father-in-law, a man of science who is not just an atheist but an evangelizing one, even he likes Francis. Who am I to judge?

The only dissatisfaction you hear about the new pope comes from the most conservative, single-issue Catholics, such as those focused on fighting abortion or gay marriage, who detect in his call to broaden the discourse a diminished fervor in him to advance their particular cause. They may complain, but if progressive Catholics could remain in the church despite the Vatican’s hostility to most of their positions, it’s unlikely that these activists will be going anywhere simply because the generally conservative new pope who lines up with them on all the big social issues insists on talking about other things.


Mark Mullaney, president of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, sees in Francis a promising return to the open, questioning spirit of John XXIII and Vatican II. Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

ON A MONDAY EVENING in January of 2002, a group of 25 Catholics gathered in the basement of a church in Wellesley. They were still staggering from the fresh revelations in the Globe about the 130 boys whom the Rev. John Geoghan had molested over the years and how his abuse had been allowed to continue because Law and other church leaders had repeatedly reassigned him rather than alerting police. But as the depths of the clergy sex abuse crisis became clearer, the meetings continued, and soon they needed enough coffee-cup sleeves for several hundred people. By that summer, the group had topped 4,000 and moved their tent revival aimed at taking back their church straight to the Hynes Convention Center.

The group’s members recognized that “change in the Catholic Church happens over centuries, not decades,” recalls Mark Mullaney, the current president of Voice of the Faithful. “But just in the year since Pope Francis’s election, that change has been a lot faster than we thought.”

Like many in his organization, the 68-year-old Mullaney — who attended that very first meeting in Wellesley with his wife, Kathy — has longed for a return to the searching spirit of Vatican II, and he sees that in Francis. “It’s a throwback to John XXIII,” he says. “All of a sudden a breath of fresh air came into the church. We can have discussions where discussions were not allowed before.”

And for Catholics who grew tired of having to defend their continued association with the church, Francis has been a relief by sparking interest in their religion from outsiders that is both widespread and positive.

One of Voice of the Faithful’s main goals was to bring about structural change in the church by elevating the role of the laity and closing the gap between the princes and the people. Mullaney says the new pope’s words and actions on this point have so far been pitch perfect. “We’re not just whistling Dixie anymore,” he says. “We’re talking a tune that the pope is whistling as well.”

For suddenly hopeful Catholics, the worry now is that the 77-year-old pope might not be around long enough to let this change take root. “We just hope it continues, and that he has the strength to do that,” Mullaney says. But like John XXIII, who began his papacy at the same age, Francis seems to be laying the groundwork for dramatic changes that cannot be easily undone after he’s gone. John XXIII died after just five years as pope, but his influence lasted for decades. Of course, big tests remain that will reveal the depth and effectiveness of Francis’s reformist ways. How robust will his commitment be to accountability and transparency in the church’s handling of clergy sex abuse, the kind of reforms called for in this month’s scathing report from the United Nations? Will he punish bishops found to have covered up for abusive priests? He hasn’t said enough about these critical issues yet, though his decision to raise the stature of Cardinal O’Malley, whose credentials on these matters are among the best in the church, is an encouraging sign.

Francis has made clear his opposition to the ordination of women. Had he not, of course, he could have never been elected pope this time or been runner-up to Benedict during the last conclave. Still, he has lauded “the indispensable contribution of women in society, in particular with their sensitivity and intuition toward the other, the weak, and the unprotected.” And he has indicated a willingness to consider expanding the way “many women share some pastoral responsibilities with priests.” Just what he has in mind, however, remains unclear.

He had an ideal opportunity to break with the misogyny of the church’s past by pulling the plug on the misguided censure and five-year oversight of the organization representing most American nuns for espousing “radical feminist themes” and not speaking out enough against gay marriage and abortion. Mullaney hopes that Francis’s decision, made just a month into his tenure, to let the discipline stand was merely a political calculation not to offend the pope emeritus and enrage the lieutenants who had imposed it and that he’ll eventually reverse course. Francis has since made comments suggesting that insisting on doctrinal purity among the nuns will not be a priority for him. That makes sense. Anyone who cares as much as Francis does about improving the lives of the poor has to know that few in the church have been more committed to walking that walk than the sisters.


Sister Nancy Braceland, who runs Casserly House in Roslindale, has long ministered to the needy.Jessica Rinaldi for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

SISTER NANCY BRACELAND leads me down her street and onto a winding path through a low-income apartment complex. I had made this same walk with her a decade ago, the last time I had seen her, when I was writing a story about a young lawyer awash with options who had surprisingly chosen to become a nun, inspired in part by the good sister’s example. And now, on this bitingly cold day, bundled up in her powder-blue parka over her navy slacks, Sister Nancy is eager to show me how much things have improved.

A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, she runs the congregation’s Casserly House, a three-decker in Roslindale. The wood-carved sign by the front door reads “Rooted in Boston. Open to the World.” Sister Nancy lives upstairs with two other nuns who have jobs elsewhere to help pay for the house. Working with volunteers and her fellow nuns, Sister Nancy ministers to the needs of the community. In the mornings, they run ESL and citizenship classes for adult immigrants out of Casserly’s first floor; in the afternoons, homework tutoring sessions for neighborhood kids.

The Sisters of St. Joseph opened Casserly House in 2000, and by now Sister Nancy has become one of the most recognizable faces in the neighborhood. She is slender, blunt, and funny, and she walks faster than any 78-year-old has a right to. During my visit a decade ago, she had taken me through a large vacant lot a block away that had become a dumping ground for old mattresses, spent needles, and other instruments of trouble. For years, she and others had hounded the out-of-town property owner to clean things up, with little luck.

As we turn on the path through the apartment complex, which has been spruced up nicely since my last visit, I hear banging hammers. At the end of the path, I look up to see two sets of handsome new town houses rising up where the eyesore of a vacant lot had been. The owner had finally given in and sold his land to Habitat for Humanity. As she heard it, “he got tired of the nun,” Sister Nancy says, laughing.

One of the two-unit houses is done, one is still under construction, and work has yet to begin on a third. She introduces herself to a group of college women carrying lumber, one wearing a pink hard hat. Then she calls over the Habitat project manager, points to a shabby, fenced-in spit of no man’s land just past the property line — the last vestige of the eyesore lot — and tells him: “I want you to take over that triangle. It needs to get cleaned up.”

Back at Casserly House, a few middle school girls plop down at the dining room table and crack open their textbooks. One of them, Salamata Barry, a 14-year-old seventh-grader, arrived here from the West African country of Guinea in June, speaking three languages but not a word of English. Now her English is crisp and confident, and her report card is a blanket of A’s and B’s. Her mother, Binta, had made her way to the States 10 years earlier, and a few years later someone at a nonprofit had directed her to Casserly House. Only after she’d gotten settled had she been able to send for the children she’d left behind. She had arrived in Boston not just with no English but without a single day’s schooling in her life. “Sister Nancy, she had to show me how to use a pencil,” Binta tells me. The fact that she is a Muslim and Sister Nancy a Catholic nun hadn’t mattered a bit.

At one point I sit down with Sister Nancy and two Casserly volunteers to talk about the connection between what’s happening in Rome and what they’re doing in Roslindale. Jim McCarthy is a 69-year-old retired high-tech program manager who’s in his fifth year at Casserly. He has a car, but he chooses to take public transportation for his commute from his home in Sudbury to Roslindale so that he can be more with the people. It’s an honorable but inefficient practice. His round trip takes four hours. He says he seriously considered not re-upping for another stint this year so that he could spend more time with his wife and four granddaughters. But then Francis was elected, and he felt the work he was doing at Casserly was completely in synch with the new pope’s philosophy of going out to the poor and meeting them where they are.

The other volunteer comes from the opposite end of the age spectrum. Meg Klein is a 23-year-old recent college grad from Tacoma, Washington, who has been assigned to Casserly for a one-year Jesuit equivalent of AmeriCorps. She was in middle school when the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded and admits that she had her doubts about the church in those dark days. Ultimately, though, she took to heart the Jesuits’ commitment to setting the world on fire by doing for others.

Despite all the attention around the pope, does he ultimately affect their work on the front lines of Roslindale? Sister Nancy uses an analogy she’s heard often. “If you work at McDonald’s, who your manager is affects you a lot more than who owns the company,” she says. Because she’s always had the support of her congregation of sisters, she’s never had trouble continuing her ministry, regardless of who happens to be running the Vatican.

Still, she says, it feels good to have Francis in charge. “It’s nice to be at one with your church.”

Then she turns to Meg and asks her the question that is still forming in my mind, about how real and permanent they think these changes are.

“Do you trust it?” Sister Nancy asks.

Meg squints and releases a tentative smile. “I want to.”

“People ask me that all the time,” Sister Nancy says, “if I trust it.” She pauses, letting the question hang in the air for so long I that I wonder if she’ll ever answer it. Then she does. “I do.”


General population3,951,3774,138,274
Catholic population2,083,8991,906,372
Mass attendance316,811258,025

Includes the counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Plymouth (excepting the towns of Marion, Mattapoisett, and Wareham)

Source: Archdiocese of Boston

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer and author of the new book Trapped Under the Sea. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.