Catholics around the world may be especially tuned in during Sunday's homilies, following Pope Francis' bombshell interview in which he urged the church to take a softer line on the hot-button issues that have become increasingly polarizing in recent years.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods," Francis said in a 12,000-word article published Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
The statements were hailed by liberal Catholics as the latest evidence that Pope Francis could lead the church to a new age of tolerance toward abortion and homosexuality. New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based ministry that caters to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, characterized it as a “new dawn,” while Equally Blessed — a coalition of four Catholic groups — said the comments were “rain on a parched land.” James Salt, executive director of national nonprofit Catholic United, said he was “overjoyed,” adding that he’s eagerly anticipating how conservatives will respond.
“Pope Francis is saying what every faithful lay Catholic knows: to be effective in the modern world, the Church must refocus on what Christ actually taught us: to proclaim God’s love and good news for the poor, the vulnerable and the forgotten,” Salt said in a statement. “For too long, right-wing activists have distorted and co-opted Catholic teaching to suit their agendas. Pope Francis put a stop to that today.”
While Francis indeed said in the interview "I've never been a right-winger," he also said "the teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."
The real message, according to Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, is that the church must "rediscover that the door to a person's soul passes through his heart."
"The pope is still Catholic," said Wenski, who met with his priests to discuss the interview. "He has not made any reversals of church doctrine, and he cannot. However, I think what the pope is doing is pushing the reset button. He is saying we can make all the cerebral arguments we want about the issues of the day, but those arguments fall on deaf ears or get misinterpreted if we don't first try to reach the person through the heart."
Other Catholic leaders said the Pope's message is as old as the Gospel itself, but said his words reflect an unmistakable change in style.
“Pope Francis is re-articulating church teaching," said Archbishop Gregory Aymond, of New Orleans. "But he’s doing it with heart. He’s doing in a way that reaches out to people. He’s calling us to explain church teaching, to be patient with people, to walk with them in their questions and ambiguities. And if they reject the teaching, to still be there for them as companions in the Lord. Pope Francis is not dialing back on the issues. I think he’s dialing back on how we teach the issues. And how we call the people — not out of fear, but in openness of heart.”
Officials at the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., agreed.
“He talks about Church ministers as merciful, like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor not as detail oriented bureaucrats,” read a statement from the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. “The Gospel message that Jesus Christ loves you and has saved you should be primary.
“It is not that we should not address certain issues; rather we must look at them in the full pastoral context, one that shows the love and mercy and Gospel message of Jesus because, ‘We must always consider the person,’” the statement concluded.
U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a lead role in voicing the U.S. church's opposition to contraception and gay marriage, said Francis’ interview confirmed what has already been apparent.
“… [T]hat he is a man who profoundly believes in the mercy of a loving God, and who wants to bring that message of mercy to the entire world, including those who feel that they have been wounded by the Church,” Dolan said in a statement issued Thursday. “As a priest and bishop, I particularly welcome his reminder that the clergy are primarily to serve as shepherds, to be with our people, to walk with them, to be pastors, not bureaucrats! It is becoming more evident every day that we are blessed with a Pope who is a good shepherd after the heart of Christ.”
On Friday, Dolan, while appearing on “CBS This Morning,” said Francis’ words sent shock waves throughout the church.
"Every pope has a different strategy," Dolan said. ''What I think he's saying is, 'Those are important issues and the church has got to keep talking about them, but we need to talk about them in a fresh new way. If we keep kind of a negative finger-wagging tone, it's counterproductive.”
Dolan continued: "Every day I think, 'Thank God he was elected.' ... Every day I say, 'This man is batting a thousand.'"
Rev. James Bretzke, a theology professor at Boston College, said the interview left no question that Francis is attempting to spearhead a shift in the church.
“It clearly shows that while the pope has heard criticisms of his style, remarks, actions, and lack of actions, he is not accepting these, and he believes he has to re-configure the tenor of the church,” Bretzke told the Boston Globe.
The Vatican's senior communications adviser, however, insisted Friday that Francis was not questioning the papacies or priorities of his predecessors.
"The pope is not condemning his predecessors," Greg Burke told The Associated Press. "What he is saying is 'We've spent a lot of time talking about the boundaries. We've spent a lot of time talking about what is sin and what's not. Now let's move on. Let's talk about mercy. Let's talk about love.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.