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Different on pope's message: Some cheer openness, others say church must defend beliefs

Some cheer openness, others say church must defend beliefs

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 11:50 a.m. MDT

In this photo provided by the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo Saturday, March 23, 2013. Pope Francis has traveled to Castel Gandolfo to have lunch with his predecessor Benedict XVI in a historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the Catholic Church. The Vatican said the two popes embraced on the helipad. In the chapel where they prayed together, Benedict offered Francis the traditional kneeler used by the pope. Francis refused to take it alone, saying In this photo provided by the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis meets Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo Saturday, March 23, 2013. Pope Francis has traveled to Castel Gandolfo to have lunch with his predecessor Benedict XVI in a historic and potentially problematic melding of the papacies that has never before confronted the Catholic Church. The Vatican said the two popes embraced on the helipad. In the chapel where they prayed together, Benedict offered Francis the traditional kneeler used by the pope. Francis refused to take it alone, saying "We're brothers," and the two prayed together on the same one. (Associated Press)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Mary Jean Sawey and Lucia Tirone are both devout Roman Catholics, but they don't see eye-to-eye on Pope Francis.

On Sunday, Sawey lauded the pope for his recent eyebrow-raising interview, during which he said the church had been "obsessed" with hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraceptives. Instead, the pontiff said, the church needs to be welcoming to all.

But Tirone, Sawey's fellow parishioner at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Paterson, N.J., engaged in a lively debate with her friend.

"We love the sinner and we hate the sin, but they've got to be reformed," said Tirone, a self-described conservative Catholic. "These people say, 'I want it my way, Lord, and I'll keep you in the corner, and you better change your ways to my ways.' They want their cake and to eat it, too."

Pope Francis waves from his popemobile along the Copacabana beachfront on his way to celebrate Mass in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, July 28, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of young people slept under chilly skies in the white sand awaiting Francis? final Mass for World Youth Day.  (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz) (Associated Press) Pope Francis waves from his popemobile along the Copacabana beachfront on his way to celebrate Mass in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, July 28, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of young people slept under chilly skies in the white sand awaiting Francis? final Mass for World Youth Day. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz) (Associated Press)

For at least half an hour, Tirone, a 50-year-old Paterson resident, and Sawey, a 57-year-old who lives in Hawthorne, N.J., went back and forth about the pope and his latest statements. They were both at the church's Bishop Rodimer Center, where Masses are held while the Cathedral undergoes renovations.

After Masses at a number of Catholic parishes, churchgoers such as Sawey and parish priests expressed support for Pope Francis' remarks, which were part of an interview published last week by the Jesuit press. The church needs to be inclusive and less judgmental, or risk falling "like a house of cards," according to the pontiff.

"As he said, people don't need to be beat over the head with it, basically," said the Rev. Larry Evans, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Ridgefield Park. "These are our teachings, but there's a lot more."

The pope isn't attempting to change church dogma, all agree. But there were still some Catholics troubled by the pontiff's pronouncement, those who believe the church has a duty to unapologetically proclaim its tenets to the secular world, no matter how unpopular or out of step they are with popular culture. These Catholics said they await clarification from the pope.

In this picture provided Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis greets a man and a woman dressed in traditional Sardinian costumes on the occasion of his one day visit to the island of Sardinia, in Cagliari, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. Pope Francis traveled Sunday to one of Italy's poorest regions to offer hope to the unemployed and entrepreneurs struggling to hang on. In this picture provided Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis greets a man and a woman dressed in traditional Sardinian costumes on the occasion of his one day visit to the island of Sardinia, in Cagliari, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. Pope Francis traveled Sunday to one of Italy's poorest regions to offer hope to the unemployed and entrepreneurs struggling to hang on. "Where there is no work, there is no dignity," he said. Sardinia, known for its pristine beaches and swank vacation homes, has been particularly hard-hit by Italy's economic crisis, with businesses closing and more and more of the island's families forced to seek charity. The island's desperation made headlines last year when a coal miner, participating in an underground sit-in to protest the planned closure of the mine, slashed his wrists on television. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho) (Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press, Amy Newman, Mct, Andrew Medichini, Associated Press)

At St. Francis of Assisi, churchgoer Francine Garvey, 59, a borough resident, said she was "a little bit shocked" by the pontiff's comments, and wanted more information.

"I think what he was trying to say was we shouldn't only focus on the sin; that we should try to be forgiving of the sinners, because we're all sinners," Garvey said. "Everybody has an opportunity to be forgiven in our faith. We have the sacrament of reconciliation."

At the same time, the church needs to stand up and defend its beliefs, according to Garvey.

"Our faith has always taught that sin is sin, and you can't just suddenly decide it's not sin anymore because the majority of people want to do it," she said.

Following the 8 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Ridgewood, N.J., John McDonagh, 62, and his wife, Patricia, 61, both said they were "thrilled" by the pope's comments.

"I was concerned that he was going to be a little too conservative, but he's turned out to be the opposite of that," John said. "So we've been very pleased."

Pastor Ronald J. Rozniak greets parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, N.J. Pope Francis' recent interview has created debate among devout Catholics.  Pastor Ronald J. Rozniak greets parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, N.J. Pope Francis' recent interview has created debate among devout Catholics.   (Amy Newman, Mct) Pastor Ronald J. Rozniak greets parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, N.J. Pope Francis' recent interview has created debate among devout Catholics. Pastor Ronald J. Rozniak greets parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, N.J. Pope Francis' recent interview has created debate among devout Catholics. (Amy Newman, Mct)

Gene McInerney, 75, who now lives in Florida, was at the same Mass because he was visiting his family in neighboring Glen Rock, N.J. He described the pontiff's comments as an invitation for people to come back to the faith, a gesture he agreed with.

Standing in front of the Ridgewood church, McInerney said, "This is not a museum for saints. It's a hospital for sinners."

Later, at St. Catharine Church in Glen Rock, parishioners also embraced the pope's comments.

"He's a New Age pope," said Matt Sheridan, 33, of Glen Rock. "He's going to make changes that make sense. I agree with it. It's pretty common sense: Basically be nice to people."

In Paterson, Sawey argued that the church had been perceived as being hostile to gays, and that the pope was advocating embracing such outsiders, to bring them into the fold. Tirone said no pope had judged or bashed gays, and she criticized the media for being anti-Catholic.

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he is driven through St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience.  Pope Francis greets the crowd as he is driven through St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience.   (Associated Press) Pope Francis greets the crowd as he is driven through St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience. Pope Francis greets the crowd as he is driven through St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience. (Associated Press)

While stressing that she's not biased, Tirone said gays must be in line with the Catholic dogma in order to receive its sacraments, such as Holy Communion.

"It's not a free-for-all," she said. "This is not, 'Hey, let's eat, drink and be merry, because everybody goes to heaven.' "

Reaction from clergy to the pope's comments was positive. The Rev. William Benedetto of St. Catharine devoted his homilies to the pontiff's remarks at the two Masses he celebrated. He put them in the context of a priest tending to his flock, and the theme of healing that the pope discussed.

Benedetto said that the interview was not an encyclical but an informal talk where the pontiff could speak from his heart and mind.

"It's refreshing to see someone who isn't so guarded, so careful," Benedetto said.

Evans said his parishioners hadn't asked him about the pope's comments.

Pope Francis walks the last part of his tour through the crowd in St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Associated Press) Pope Francis walks the last part of his tour through the crowd in St. Peter's Square before delivering his message, translated in several languages, during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (Associated Press)

"I don't think most people even care," the pastor said. "All he said was everybody understands the teachings; let's be about ministry. And he asked priests, be about the ministry. We have to care for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned... For me it's not an issue, because I do that stuff anyway. To me, church is not a theology class. It's to give us nuggets so we can actually chew on it during the course of the week."

Monsignor Ronald Rozniak, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, also said his parishioners hadn't approached him about the pontiff's comments.

"I liked what he said," Rozniak said. "He talks about being a sinner. We're all sinners. We're a church of sinners. And we welcome people and we hope to help them in their journey through their lives. But you don't help anybody by closing your doors."

Nonetheless, the pastor said he was surprised by the bluntness of the pope's comments.

Pope Francis delivers his Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 1.   (Associated Press) Pope Francis delivers his Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 1. (Associated Press)

"He has a lot of guts," Rozniak said. "You can see that he's a pastor, that he's accustomed to being a pastor of souls. He really cares about people."

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