A year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine: A pope who dresses simply, who lives in a Vatican guesthouse, who calls for a “poor church for the poor.”
Who speaks warmly about gay people. Who poses for selfies with young fans.
Who says church leaders have become too preoccupied with contraception, homosexuality, and abortion.
After one of the worst decades in Roman Catholic church history, marked by a devastating sexual abuse scandal, internecine turf battles at the Vatican, and a widening chasm between the hierarchy and the people, Pope Francis is changing the conversation about Catholicism around the world — and here at home.
Interviews with a dozen local Catholics offer a sense of how New Englanders have been absorbing the pope's words and gestures, considering their meaning for the church and for their own spiritual lives.
They come from three very different parishes: Immaculate Conception is a multicultural, urban parish on Broadway in Everett, where Mass is offered in English, Haitian Creole, and Spanish. Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, N.H., is a traditionalist church with a thriving charismatic prayer ministry. St. Susanna in Dedham is known as one of the most liberal parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston.
What they have in common: energetic and beloved pastors, vibrant communities, and a powerful sense of hope for the future of their church.
Francis. That's what she calls him, just Francis.
"Because he is one of us," she says. "There is no barrier."
The first Jesuit pope reminds Philomène Péan of the Jesuits in Weston who helped prepare her to become a spiritual director. They made her feel comfortable, free to be herself.
"They really show you the true face of Jesus," she says.
Péan has built her life around the church. When she was in her early 20s, she started a mission church in Luly, an impoverished village in her native Haiti. The congregation grew from four members to more than 200. She sat with mothers of sick children, prayed with fishermen in their boats, even preached on Sundays. Everything a priest does, except for the sacramental work forbidden to women — marriage, baptisms, the consecration of bread and wine.
The experience deepened Péan's love for her church — and her impatience with it. She wants the all-male hierarchy to let women and unordained men do more, make more decisions, even participate in the election of popes. The economic disparity within the church sickens her.
"You have poor Haitians who are serving the same God who cannot even have one meal," she says.
Two decades on, Péan spends most of her time taking care of other people. She is a pastoral associate serving Immaculate Conception's 500-member Haitian community, and a hospital chaplain pursuing a doctorate in ministry.
Pope Francis feels almost like a colleague. Maybe it sounds audacious, but Péan thinks that is how he would see it, too. He shows by example that leadership means serving others, she says, and he has made social justice and mercy his calling cards.
"I feel like Francis is ready, even if it would kill him, to say the truth," she says. "I like his radicalism."
But Péan fears the age of Francis will slip away, an opportunity wasted. How does he want women's roles in the church to change in the next three years? How will the poor be better off?
"He needs to have a pastoral plan, to know where he is going," she says, "and so we can also follow him."
When she read that Pope Francis said in an interview, published in America Magazine in September, that the church has overemphasized hot-button social issues, including abortion, and that it was "not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time," Jackie Morganti paused.
Morganti wasn't sure what to think. She has stood outside abortion clinics, on city sidewalks, helped organize the annual Respect Life Retreat each spring at Holy Rosary.
“I’m waiting for someone to explain his comments to me,” she said in October, a few weeks after Francis’s interview was published. “I’m sure he wasn’t intending to say
But her concern has eased over time as she has heard more about the pope, and as her pastor, the Rev. Paul Gousse, has helped explain Francis's words.
It seems to Morganti that what the pope meant was that you should love people first, then worry about doctrine. This makes sense to her.
She pictures the church's teaching as a precious gem that looks a bit different, depending on the perspective.
"Rather than being didactic, as Pope Benedict had been, he's more like off-the-cuff," she says of Francis. "He sees the beautiful, loving side of the gem rather than the black-and-white, I-have-to-tell-you-this-rule side of the gem."
She wonders, though, if after his words were published, the pope suddenly found himself surrounded by a bunch of cardinals demanding to know, What the heck were you thinking?
Morganti, 64, coordinates her church's charismatic healing prayer ministry. She sees so much to like about the new pope — his support for the charismatic movement within Catholicism, his care for the poor, his obvious love for Jesus.
"I have a tremendous hope he is leading the church in ways that will make the church grow, that will challenge the church, and eventually will bring people back to the church — once this misunderstanding is wiped away," she says. "I'm afraid for him that he will say something that will get him in hot water, and that people will react strongly, rather than letting the dust settle."
Richard McGuinness , 47, grew up in a close-knit family in West Roxbury and Norwood. He flourished, socially and academically, at Xaverian Brothers High School and the Catholic University of America.
When he came out as gay in his 20s, he never saw it as a religious crisis. These days, he goes to Mass every week at St. Susanna with his partner of nine years.
"I've never let the church's hang-ups bother my faith," he says. "I grew up with this religion. It's my religion. . . . I don't want middlemen of the cloth interfering with my relationship with God."
Coming to terms with his sexuality, he says, "kind of corrected me." It helps him, as someone who has been privileged in so many ways, understand what it means to be ostracized.
"Is it God-given? Probably," he says of his sexuality.
But sinful? No.
And so he is a little amused when people remark to him that he must feel elated that the new pope has said he will not judge gay people, and that they are loved by God.
Still, he is glad that Francis is changing the tone and retraining the church's focus.
"I think about the nuns that have dedicated their lives to those who live in poverty, who are educators, nurturers, nurses — they're like the troops of the church. And what do they think when they hear these bombastic directives on homosexuality and gays? They need backup."
Every day, Ann Moore rises before dawn to make her way to Immaculate Conception for the 7 a.m. Mass. On Saturdays, dozens of Vietnamese Catholics from around Boston gather for the service, and then devotions in their native language.
Moore fled the ravages of war in her native Vietnam in 1975 on a US Navy ship, a younger brother at her side. She was a nun in her early 20s, and tiny, just 80 pounds. But as the eldest of eight siblings, she was strong in spirit. Within a decade, she had managed to help her whole family — including her father, who had been imprisoned in a brutal reeducation camp — immigrate to the United States.
She now runs an electronics store, and has a grown daughter who recently graduated from Boston University.
She has not forgotten Vietnam. She raises money for a Catholic charity in a desperately poor region of the country that cares for lepers and abandoned children. Many in the Catholic hierarchy, she says, cannot fathom what their lives are like.
But she remembers what she saw as a nun. Leprosy eating away at hands and fingers. Newborns left mewling on the doorstep of the convent. Families who lived in the woods, hunting small animals to survive.
These are the people Francis keeps talking about, the people he aligns himself with by living simply. The church, she says, needs to follow the pope's example.
"I don't have anything against them, but up till now we have priests, we have bishops, we have cardinals, they still live a luxury life," she says. "Not Francis."
When she first saw the now-famous photograph of Pope Francis embracing Vinicio Riva, a man disfigured by a painful skin disease, she wept.
"I think that touched so many, many lives around the world," she says. "I said, 'Pope, God bless your soul.' "
The old brick church on Broadway, with its echoing sanctuary and shopworn parish hall, has been Laurence Arinello's parish home for decades. He was married there. His kids were baptized there. He drives to Immaculate Conception just about every morning at 6 to pray the rosary.
"I do it because I'm a sinner, not because I'm a holy roller," says Arinello, 61.
The way he sees it, church history goes through cycles, with liberal and conservative swings, much like American politics. Francis is opening things up, and Arinello thinks it's healthy.
"Right now," he says, "we have to be aware, tolerant, forgiving."
But he wonders whether Francis will do more, maybe relax the rules about divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and contraception. He hopes so.
"He's done a lot of symbolic things as far as being present, kissing the children, being simple, not living in the papal apartments, but living in a simpler setting," he said. "But I think and I hope there are more fundamental changes."
A retired elementary school principal, Arinello respects tough-mindedness — exercised judiciously. It was a good sign, he thought, that Francis disciplined a German bishop who made extravagant repairs to his residence.
"He's showing them he's got a little chutzpah," he says.
Arinello and his wife are comfortable, in an unpretentious, middle-class kind of way. They give to the church, to various charities.
But lately, he has caught himself wondering whether they do enough. Francis has made him think about that.
"We don't really give till we hurt," he says. "And maybe that's what people have to do. Maybe they need to hurt a little bit more."
Ray Gagne, a 68-year-old retired shipyard worker who has lived in New Hampshire all his life, says he doesn't have a problem with Pope Francis so far but feels it's too early to decide whether he is "the best pope that ever came down the pike or the worst."
Gagne does not follow the news from Rome closely. But when he heard reports this summer on what the pope said about gay priests — "Who am I to judge?" — that caught his attention.
What did the pope mean, exactly?
Further reading, and the explanations of his priest at Holy Rosary, led Gagne to conclude that the pope was not speaking approvingly of homosexuality — which, he says, "is not something the church can accept." Instead, he says, "it sounded like a pronouncement from a humble person."
Scripture is clear that homosexuality is sinful, he says, but Gagne does not dislike gay people.
"I'm going to say what we have always been taught — hate the sin, but love the sinner," he says.
Gagne loved Pope John Paul II, who took on communists and made the church feel more global. He recoils when he hears talk about the American church separating from Rome — mainly among "Christmas Catholics," he says wryly, who don't come to church the rest of the year.
He hopes Francis will keep the global church united.
"The church was founded by Christ, and the successors of Peter are pretty straightforward; you can actually name each one of them," he says. "I think it's important as a church to stay that way."
Linda Bates, 51, stopped going to church years ago, when she heard a priest urging his parish to support a political party in an upcoming election.
She came back — to a new church, St. Susanna — when her dad got cancer. And she has stayed. The warmth of the community, its welcoming sensibility, and the Rev. Stephen S. Josoma's down-to-earth homilies keep her there.
With her sister, she runs the parish's "Landings" program, which offers a path back to church for inactive Catholics during Lent. This year, she says, they are using quotations from Pope Francis in ads for the program.
"Pope Francis has a way of expressing what is the heart of Landings — everybody's welcome, and God is in everyone," she says.
Bates worries about her parish's future. The plan by the archdiocese to cluster parishes had initially proposed pairing St. Susanna with another more traditional parish in town, St. Mary. Parishioners at St. Susanna protested, saying there were too many differences in the parishes' finances and pastoral and spiritual approaches. Plans have been put on hold temporarily.
The priest shortage is driving the clustering process, which archdiocesan officials hope will strengthen parishes and eventually draw more men to the priesthood. But Bates fears it could be disastrous for some communities.
She is planning to write the pope about it, especially since Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, is among eight cardinals advising Francis on church governance reform.
"I want to bring this up with [Francis] and say, 'This is . . . going to drive people away," she says.
"The reality is there are other ways that we can address this. If you expand the priesthood to married men — which we already do in some cases — or if you allow women to at least be deacons, we wouldn't have a priest shortage anymore."
When Pope Francis was elected, Alejandro Salazar's Anglo co-workers wanted to talk to him about the new pontiff from Argentina.
"Wow, Alejandro, Papa Francesco said this or that, and I like it," he says they told him. "Now we have a Spanish pope; how do you feel about that?"
Salazar, who was trained as a veterinarian in his native Peru but now works at a janitorial company, felt proud. He heard the fascination, the respect in their voices.
But he does not really care where the pope is from, or what languages he speaks.
"What the pope is doing, that's what counts for me," the 53-year-old says.
Almost five years ago, Salazar worked with the Rev. Gerald Osterman to introduce a Spanish-language Mass at Immaculate Conception. Today it is a community of 500 weekly worshipers, and Salazar is an active lay leader.
Salazar is an American citizen, but many parishioners are not. He sees families torn apart by immigration laws, by complicated overseas relationships, by poverty, illness, racism, fear.
People ask him: Do you have to be married in the church to sing in the choir? What exactly are the rules about marriage and communion?
Francis's interview in America magazine helped Salazar clarify his own thinking on these questions. The pope spoke of the church as a field hospital — a triage center that, as Francis put it, must stanch wounds before fussing over cholesterol levels.
"The church's job is not to help the saints, but to help the people who are losing control of their lives, who really have problems," Salazar says.
A vital part of that triage team, as priests become older and scarcer, he says, will be parishioners like himself, unordained Catholics who take on parish responsibilities. Francis, Salazar says, inspires him to look more carefully for those in distress, to work harder to help.
In the age of Francis, he says, "we have to go outside, look for the poor people, for the people in need. We cannot [stay] inside the walls."
Amber Brimberry grew up in Texas, occasionally attending Catholic churches as a child. When she moved to New Hampshire to be with family, and then resolved to stay, she decided to explore the religion more deeply. Brimberry, now 26, loved the tradition, the elaborate ritual, the core values of love and helping others.
One day Brimberry was driving by Holy Rosary, and something about the midcentury modern church reminded her of the little mission church she knew from back home — the stone and the wood, maybe. It felt homey, and she decided to start going there.
But the leaders of the church in Rome have always felt a world apart from her daily life. Her family lionized Pope John Paul II, but to Brimberry, he seemed "entrenched in the political battles that became the church in this century." Pope Benedict was, too, and it exasperated Brimberry, who abhors politics.
Francis fills Brimberry with relief.
"For once, someone is sitting in the Holy See who is going, 'Stop paying attention to all this frivolous junk; you're getting into debates with people over abortion when you just had an opportunity to tell them that God is good,' " she says.
Brimberry strongly opposes abortion, except when the mother's health is in danger. Two friends have ended pregnancies. She tried, unsuccessfully, to change their minds.
Those experiences illuminated for Brimberry the importance of embracing individuals for who they are, and not condemning them, she says, for their mistakes. Everyone, she says, needs to feel loved and included.
"The word catholic means all-inclusive," she says. "I feel like the more we focus on political issues and social debates, the less catholic we are, the less inclusive we become."
For half her life, 81-year-old Sally Gould has been part of a small Catholic Bible study group that meets monthly in Needham. They have grown old together — firmly devoted to the faith, but uncomfortable with what they see as the church's tendency toward oversimplification and judgment.
Gould proposed that her Bible study group read and discuss the pope's America interview. It electrified them.
"These particular 20 pages just made all the difference to me, and to the 10 loyal people I have been meeting with once a month over these 40 years," she says.
Gould, a mother of five grown children who works at her family's business, feels at home in her parish, St. Susanna. Francis makes her feel more a part of the universal church than ever before.
He sees things in shades of gray, not black and white, she says; he believes certitude is folly, that faith is dynamic, that judgment is God's responsibility alone.
"I'm not certain my way is the only way," she says. "What do we know? We try and struggle to learn, but it's called faith for a reason."
Frances X. Hogan's family goes back six generations at Immaculate Conception. For a quarter-century, she spent every Christmas Day running the parish's dinner for the poor and lonely.
And she is a national leader in the Catholic anti-abortion movement. Unlike some activists, she did not bristle when Francis said it was time to take the focus off abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.
"I think he is saying to the laity, 'It is your responsibility as you go out into the world with this tone of being open, to listening, and to healing, and to helping,' " she says. "Some pro-life people don't agree with that, but I do."
Her mindset comes from experience. Back in 1990, when the media seemed to always turn to male spokesmen for the anti-abortion movement, Hogan cofounded a women's advocacy group, Women Affirming Life. Following the 1994 abortion clinic killings in Brookline, she joined secret talks among three abortion rights leaders and three antiabortion leaders. The group met for six years, becoming friends.
Francis, she says, gets the importance of civil dialogue. It is not about catching more flies with honey, as people keep saying; it is about principle.
"I respect the person I disagree with the same as I respect the child in the womb," she says. "It's not that I respect the child in the womb until the child is born, and then you don't care anymore."
Peter Hartzel is a history buff. He is fascinated with church history, and has absorbed enough of it to be planning an educational program at St. Susanna's this winter on the first 1,200 years of the papacy.
In Boston, many Catholics maintain a quiet skepticism about the church hierarchy; Hartzel — a 70-year-old portfolio manager with an investment firm — holds a remarkably jaundiced view.
He left the church in his 20s, he says, because he was "fed up with the medievalism, the hypocrisy, the authoritarianism of the church, even though I'd come up through it."
He returned a decade later. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life, he says: "Underneath, there is a core of theology that is real and speaks to me, and can be saving, and is open to all people."
He watched the selection of a new pope with interest, but not much optimism. Francis has stunned him.
"Here was a guy that was talking the language I'd been wanting to hear, getting away from this strident condemnation of people," he says. "He moved away from the pope's palace and took a much more humble circumstance. If I had my way, I'd melt Rome down and sell all the art."
He is disappointed that Francis has ruled out women's ordination, and he remains doubtful about whether Francis's ideas "can break through the old-boy network of the hierarchy."
Still, he said, Francis's first few months have been "transfiguring for me."
"I'm more hopeful that there will be a church in the future that my grandchildren would be willing to take part in."
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.