- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2013

Parishioners and visitors at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception expressed hope Thursday that Pope Francis will call the church establishment back to its core mission and values — and perhaps bring wayward elements of the flock back into line.

Catholics in the U.S. and around the world are waiting to see how Francis, who was elected pope Wednesday evening, addresses issues worrying the faithful, such as declining parish numbers, the church’s slipping credibility, and the financial mismanagement scandal at the Vatican Bank. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that American Catholics view sexual misconduct and scandal among the clergy as the church’s most pressing problem.

Catholic author Dawn Eden said that an administrative housecleaning appears to be in order.

“I’m expecting a pope who’s going to clean house. It’s well known that, as we can see from the ‘VatiLeaks’ scandal, there were some people among or very close to the Curial officials who were actively working to subvert what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to accomplish,” said Ms. Eden, referring to the leak of confidential documents by Benedict’s former butler.

“On the one hand, he will uphold the moral teaching of the church, and at the same time, he will remind us that we have to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for love of God and neighbor,” said Ms. Eden, who frequently attends Mass at the Basilica in Northeast Washington, the largest Roman Catholic church in the U.S. People there Thursday were abuzz about the election of the Argentine cardinal, the first pontiff from the Americas and the first Jesuit to hold the office.

Margaret Bewley, a theology student at Catholic University, said Thursday that she admired the humility Francis displayed when he first appeared on the balcony over St. Peter’s Square after his election, merely smiling without raising his arms.

“I expect him to teach us humility,” said Ms. Bewley, who is studying at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. “The church [in the U.S.] is struggling, but not in any way dying. It needs to be revitalized, for sure, and to remember its roots.”

Andrea Kent of Laytonsville wants Francis to stand firm against pressures to liberalize church teachings.

“It might — might — be too much to expect Pope Francis to give us the brilliant theological arguments and sociopolitical insights we had from Benedict,” Ms. Kent said in reference to the previous pope, who resigned effective Feb. 28 for health reasons. “Still, I hope Francis will gently instruct the world that Catholic moral teachings — even those that seem hard — are true, good and beautiful, informed by love.”

Carlos Caso-Rosendi, who lives in Front Royal, Va., but is in Buenos Aires on family business, expressed hope that the new pontiff will both revitalize the faith and bring order to the church’s liturgical practices.

“I think we want the pope to put order in the church,” Mr. Caso-Rosendi said in an email. “The topics are sadly evident and well covered all over the Catholic and secular press. One thing Benedict longed for was liturgical unity. The center of the life of the church is the Mass and one can hardly find two parishes that conduct the Mass in the same way. I would like the liturgical unity, and the liturgical sense to return to the church.”

He said the American church needs “to return to ‘Fulton Sheen Catholicism,’” which he described as “a fiercely American brand of Catholicism that is distinctive without being disloyal to the ancient doctrine.” Archbishop Sheen became the de facto public face of American Catholicism with his evangelizing sermons on radio and television from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Catholic University philosophy student David Grothoff said he hopes Francis offers the world “a clear articulation of the Gospel message” that heightens the “sense amongst people of my generation of renewal and excitement about the faith.”

The new pontiff “may draw people’s attention” to the Catholic message, he said.

Aaron Polensky, visiting from Bismarck, N.D., where he attends college, said he expects the new pope “to reinforce the ways things have been going, and to keep our traditions alive.”

Mr. Polensky said two students from his religious high school in Dickerson, N.D., have entered training for the priesthood, indicative of “a very strong faith and commitment” among the Catholics he knows.

Membership in the Catholic Church is growing in South America, Africa and Asia, and declining in Europe and the U.S. — but American Catholics said they still expect their children to grow up to be defenders of the faith.

Mr. Polensky is single but said he expects any children he would have to “have some form of faith” and to have that faith in the Catholic Church.

And Ms. Bewley, who is engaged to be married, said she would “certainly hope” that her children would remain in the faith.

“I know it cannot be forced,” she said. “I would try to lead them to that.”

As for Francis’ role in American Catholics’ lives, Erin Walsh said she hopes he “is progressive, open and honest about our failings and opportunities to do better.

“As someone who is Catholic, raising her three kids Catholic, this is an important time for my family,” said Ms. Walsh of El Dorado Hills, Calif.

Though it is far too early for American Catholics to assess Francis’ potential, one D.C. resident might have an edge: Maria Alejandro Albarracim grew up in Buenos Aires, the archdiocese of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

“He is a really good man, kind. He would fight so hard against injustice in South America,” Ms. Albarracim said Wednesday as she exited a special Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Northwest Washington.

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