In February, something happened in the Catholic Church that had not occurred in almost six hundred years: a pope resigned from the papacy.
Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, resigned his position, citing health and strength issues. This almost unheard-of decision rocked the church - already feeling the pressure from an avalanche of child abuse accusations in recent years - and lent special significance to the papal conclave that convened to choose the next pope. After Jorge Mario Bergoglio was confirmed as Pope Francis on March 13, the world held its breath to see how the new pontiff - the first from the Americas and from the Jesuit order - would guide the church.
And it would seem that a sigh of relief is in order.
"Frankly, no, no one has raised any objections to what's happening," said Monsignor Stephen McGough, of St. Boniface Church in Williamsport, about his parishioners' reactions to the new pope and the impression that he has made on them so far. "I'm very happy, very pleased."
"I think he's a wonderful man, he'll be a wonderful pope," said a parishioner of St. Ann's Catholic Church in Loyalsock Township. "His whole attitude is different."
It's a sentiment that is seemingly echoed by Catholics - and non-Catholics - around the world. Since his confirmation, much has been made of Pope Francis' humility and his willingness to eschew some of the more decadent trappings of the church. Upon his confirmation as pope, he refused the traditional mozzetta cape, which often is lined in silk or Ermine fur, and chose instead to wear plain white vestments. He makes himself accessible to worshipers after services and kisses and prays with the poor and disfigured. It's an attitude of simplicity and openness, one that the church is eager to embrace. As the church's stance on important social issues stagnated and the pope stayed largely silent, many Catholics felt the holiest position in their church was out of step with everyday life. McGough, for his part, sees the change of course as a noticeable difference between Francis and his predecessor.
"They have two entirely different styles of ministering to the people," he said. "Benedict was more theological and philosophical in his approach to religious questions. Francis is, on the other hand, more pastoral and more interested in keeping people within the church's circle."
Jerry Broskey, a nine-year parishioner of St. Lawrence Church in South Williamsport, also believes that Francis is an entirely different kind of pope.
"Pope Benedict was more of the typical pope that we had in the past," he said. "And John Paul was very pastoral, but didn't try to undo hundreds of years of church hierarchy in the way that Francis is looking to do. Pope Francis is looking to turn the church upside down in terms of making the parishioners the focus."
The Rev. John Manno, of Our Lady of Lourdes in Montoursville, agrees. "He's going to be very, very pastoral," he said.
That's a telling impression to have of the pope, a position that long has been seen as far removed from the ministry of everyday people. But like many Catholics, Manno believes that Francis is - while still adhering to the protocols of his position - a less formal and more gregarious pope than some of his predecessors. "We need rules, but we can't be concentrating on the rules all the time," he said. "We have to look at our service, we have to be open, we have to discuss things."
Discussion, it would seem, is one of the key points of Francis' papacy - and so is inclusion. McGough sees a change coming in "shared ministry," by allowing more lay involvement in church management - in other words, not only relying on priests to handle the day-to-day administration of the church. Francis wants to address issues that have caused a huge drop in Mass attendance, especially in the U.S., due in part to the church's strict stances on issues such as birth control and same-sex marriage that have not changed with the times.
"Jesus always went to the marginalized, and that's going to be a very good thing," said Manno, speaking on Francis' desire to emphasize "a welcoming church." Francis believes that, in addition to providing for the poor, the church should reach out to all of those who feel like they're on the fringes of society, and those who have become estranged from the church: divorced and same-sex couples, for example. McGough sees this shift in attitude as well, saying that the "emphasis on the poor and on those who are wounded in society are very much on the front burner for Francis." While the pope has made clear his stance on certain issues - he believes in traditional marriage, for example - it would seem that he does not allow it to interfere with his firm belief in drawing all people into the church and ministering to them equally.
"He's a pope of the people," said Manno, adding that there is a "down-to-earthness" about Francis that he didn't see in previous popes. "Jesus came among us to serve, and Francis believes the church should be about servant leadership: we lead through service."
One of the more extraordinary measures that Francis has implemented in order to serve all people is asking for real-life, parish-level input on contemporary family issues facing the church. To be completed ahead of next year's global Synod of Bishops, an in-depth questionnaire has been sent to dioceses in every corner of the globe and includes questions on issues such as same-sex or nontraditional marriage, cohabitation by unmarried couples, divorced and remarried couples, and so on, and how often these issues arise in a given parish. The questions will be officially answered by the bishop of that diocese, but they are being encouraged to share them with their parishes as widely as possible.
"It's an extraordinary synod, and it's on the family ... an issue close to everyone's life," McGough said. He said that St. Boniface already has posted the questionnaire on the parish website, and that it plans to hold a town hall-style meeting in the near future to answer any questions or concerns that may arise. "It's a real coming together," Manno agrees.
In general, it appears as though Pope Francis believes deeply in openness and engagement in the church - and it's a message that is resonating well with local Catholics.
"I think what he's done is a stroke of genius," said McGough. "This Holy Father is going to awaken a new enthusiasm among people. Francis himself has said he wants to warm people to the church." He added that, from what he has seen, people are "suddenly struck by this pastoral person who goes out to people" and that "some of them are re-evaluating their life within the church."
It's something that Manno has seen as well. "People who have been estranged for various reasons are going to come back," he said, adding that he's had "only positive" reactions to Francis from his parishioners.
As a fitting example, Manno relates a story about the piazza that leads to the entrance of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, and the four colonnades, or rows of columns, that encircle it. He said that the architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, designed them in a way so that a visitor would feel like "they were being embraced by the church."
"Francis is going to emphasize a welcoming church," Manno said with a smile. "I think he is going to embrace the world."