Local Catholic officials embrace pope’s first year

It has been more than a year since Argentine Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

Many local priests took a moment this week to talk about Pope Francis’ actions and his philosophy on particular subjects during his first year at the helm of the Vatican.

Local Catholic priests say they’re pleased with the job Francis has done as the new pope.

The Rev. Donald Czelusniak, pastor of Gloversville’s Church of the Holy Spirit and Johnstown’s Holy Trinity Church, said the pope’s choice of a name, St. Francis, was interesting and an indicator of what would come.

He said St. Francis of Assisi was a 13th-century Italian saint who was born rich but gave up his possessions to work for the church, developing a special relationship with the poor and reaching out to Muslims.

“The church has always had an emphasis of helping the poor,” Rev. John Medwid of St. Mary’s Church in Amsterdam said. “With Pope Francis though, he embodies and lives that simple lifestyle. For a pope that is the most powerful example: to show that in his own life.”

Ralph English, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and an adjunct professor of history and comparative religion at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, said from a historical context, Pope Francis is most similar to Pope John XXIII, who initiated the reforms that started with the Second Vatican Council.

Francis will canonize Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII on April 27, marking the first time two former popes will become saints on the same day.

English said Pope John XXIII is known as a “controversial character” for those who are more conservative within the church, but he aimed to reform the church to fit the modern culture, much like Francis is doing today.

“Vatican II was a dramatic attempt at having the church come to terms with where it stood in the 20th century,” English said. “Francis has been more willing than those before him to embrace the tenets of Vatican II.”

Medwid also said it’s important to notice the pope’s effort to continue the reforms that started during that council, which attempted to modernize the Catholic Church.

Both Medwid and Czelusniak said the pope’s approach of not condemning homosexuality is positive for the church community, and his hesitance to pass judgment is a significant stance by the head of the church.

“He is trying to be welcoming, but he hasn’t really changed any teaching as of the moment. Yet, just his different perspective has been powerful,” Medwid said. “Being positive and reaching out rather than condemning and being negative by quoting moral teachings has made a difference.”

“People usually approach the church with preconceived ideas, so I think him saying, ‘Who am I to judge?’ disarms those notions,” Czelusniak said. “It allows people to take another look at the church.”

The Vatican teaches Catholics to accept gay men and woman as members of the church, but it classifies homosexual acts as sinful.

“Francis has decided not to be definitive but rather all-embracing,” English said. “He seems willing to be more embracing and welcoming while at the same time staying true to the essentials of Catholicism. ‘Who am I to judge?’ is really a non-answer, but staying neutral is so different from those that were adamant before him.”

Pope Francis also has spoke about increasing the role of women in the church, and made a rather significant gesture on Holy Thursday last March when he chose to kneel down before 12 inmates, including two women and members of the Muslim faith. It marked the first time a pope had included females in the rite, officials said.

Both Czelusniak and Medwid said that gesture was groundbreaking in the church community, and symbolizes his desire to help those of all genders and religions.

“Francis was sending a signal of how important it is for religious people of all faiths to celebrate what we have in common, rather than where we differ,” English said.

Francis also made a direct local impact in his first year. Rev. Msgr. Edward B. Scharfenberger, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, was appointed by Pope Francis to succeed retired longtime Albany Roman Catholic Diocese Bishop Howard J. Hubbard.