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San Diego Catholics Weigh In On Pope Francis

Video by Katie Schoolov

Everyone seems to be talking about Pope Francis. First Time Magazine declared him person the year. Then an unlikely honor, the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate named him their person of the year. He also celebrated his 77th birthday on Tuesday. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone checks in with local Catholics to see how they feel about the new pope.

Everyone seems to be talking about Pope Francis. Time magazine recently declared him “Person of the Year.” Then an unlikely honor, the LGBT magazine “The Advocate” named him their person of the year. He also celebrated his 77th birthday on Tuesday. The pope, whose papacy began in March of 2013, is one the most talked about religious leaders in the world today, but how do San Diego’s Catholics feel about him?

Pope Francis is one of the most talked about religious leaders in the world today. We spoke with local Catholics to see how they feel about the pope and how he's led the Catholic church so far.

A Local Parish Weighs In

Our Lady of Angels church in Sherman Heights.

Our Lady of Angels in Sherman Heights is a quaint and modest church, with an old-fashioned steeple. Every Sunday, church officials raise money by serving a breakfast of Mexican food on the church lawn.

On a recent Sunday, a small but diverse group of parishioners gathered for the 9 a.m. mass. The later, 10 a.m. mass draws all the crowds, often standing room only, because it’s given in Spanish.

There was supposed to be a choir for the service, but a concert in Tijuana kept them away. Rev. Agustin Opalalic, the church’s pastor, suggested the congregation sing anyway. He struck the first note of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and the group joined in.

Our Lady of Angels is one of 98 parishes in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego. It’s not a wealthy parish. A demographic breakdown of parishioners shows 92 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are Anglo and 3 percent are of other ethnic backgrounds.

Kathryn Willetts has been going to Our Lady of Angels since the early 70s. She knows a fair bit about the new pope, thanks to a glut of recent media attention. She likes his focus on the poor and needy.

“The church has been very hierarchical for a long time with an emphasis on ritual,” Willetts said. “Having the emphasis on reaching out and helping others seems more in keeping with Christ’s message.”

Pope Francis is from Argentina. He’s the first pope from Latin America.

“I like that he’s not totally European,” said Father Opalalic, who is from the Philippines. “It shows that the church is universal.”

Opalalic calls Pope Francis the “darling of the media.”

Stories have been circulating for months about everything from the old car the pope drives, to his simple dress, to a photograph that went viral, showing his embrace of a disfigured man in St. Peter’s Square.

The pope even poses for selfies, and has more than 10 million followers on Twitter. Compared to past popes, this kind of engagement with ordinary people is unusual.

Pope Francis poses for a "selfie" with young people at the Vatican.

He signals a change in emphasis for the church. The Catholic church’s charity work is extensive, serving more than 10 million people annually in the U.S. alone. So while serving the poor has always been part of the church, the pope is stressing that social mission. He's made serving the poor and marginalized a cornerstone of his papacy.

But, according to Opalalic, that change in emphasis doesn’t necessarily mean a change in church doctrine or policy. “The best thing to see in Pope Francis is for him to respond to the problems of the world today, yet remain faithful to the gospel without changing church doctrine,” Opalalic said.

He adds, “That is not easy.”

The Pope is Not the CEO of the Church

Dick Lyles hosts a weekly radio show for Catholic business leaders. He is a devout Catholic.

Dick Lyles hosts his weekly radio show from his expansive, mountain-top home in Poway. The call-in show is called “The Catholic Business Hour.” Lyles offers advice to Catholic business leaders, focusing on how to merge Catholic beliefs and business practices.

He is a life-long Catholic and his home is filled with religious art. Lyles also writes a column for the Pomerado News, where he’s recently voiced his opposition to Obamacare and the minimum wage hike.

Lyles doesn’t believe this pope will make substantial changes to church policy. “Most people don’t understand the role of the pope,” he said. “The pope is not the CEO of the church. His role is to spread the faith and the word of God, not to change it, rewrite it or to rewrite history.”

The only person who can change church doctrine, says Lyles, is Jesus Christ since doctrine is based on the Gospels. “It would be pretty presumptuous to change what Jesus taught,” he added.

The Catholic church is sometimes criticized for not being in step with the modern world, especially on matters of gender equality and sexuality. Lyles doesn’t think that’s a problem. “Maybe the modern world needs to be more in dialogue with the church,” said Lyles.

Sister Maria Pascuzzi sees things differently. “We have a spokesman now who is interested in making the church relevant,” Pascuzzi said by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she now lives. She is a biblical scholar who taught at the University of San Diego for t12years.

Pascuzzi admires Pope Francis’ focus on inclusion, the spirit of which might be best represented in the pope’s response to a journalist who asked him about gay priests. Pope Francis responded, “Who am I to judge?”

In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, New Yorker writer James Carroll described the pope’s response as extraordinary. “A resounding repudiation of a basic assumption of Catholic life, which is: The pope is there to judge,” said Carroll.

Pascuzzi and other nuns I spoke with hope the pope’s inclusivity broadens the role of women in the church. Pascuzzi doesn’t think he will allow the ordination of women priests, but she says there are other options to include women. “It doesn’t require ordination to be a theological advisor to the pope, so maybe he’ll choose a woman for that,” Pascuzzi noted.

Back at the church breakfast, parishioners lingered after mass to enjoy the menudo and enchiladas.

Lorenzo Harrison Ford relaxed in the shade. He said he hopes the pope’s popularity helps grow the church. “I think what he’s doing is really good,” Ford said. “He’s getting people back in the church and believing in it again.”

A 2011 study by an economist at the University of Notre Dame estimates that the church lost about 2 million members — or 3 percent of its U.S. membership — because of the sexual abuse scandals involving members of the clergy.

I asked longtime parishioner Bill Landry what changes he would like to see in the church. “I think maybe priests could become married or a have a family or something like that,” Landry said.

Priest celibacy is a discipline of the Church that isn’t absolute, but it’s been in practice since the 4th century. Ending it would be an extremely bold move by the pope.

“All of these things sound like the Berlin Wall, you know?” Pascuzzi said. “And I think the important thing to remember is the Berlin Wall was there and there and there. And then it wasn’t. “

No one can predict what changes Pope Francis will make, if any. But he certainly has the world’s attention.

As millions of Catholics prepare for Christmas, he told an audience this week to put themselves in “the service of the poor” this holiday season.

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