Pope Francis through a U.S. Catholic prism

Pope Francis in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2015.
(Jewel Samad / Associated Press)

Pope Francis in his first trip to the United States has spoken boldly about the need for change — in the way we treat the environment, immigrants and the poorest among us.

With messages that resonated beyond those of his faith, he seemed well aware that the future of Roman Catholicism may depend less on bringing people to church than on bringing the church to the people.

Societal values in the U.S. and elsewhere are changing rapidly. Public opinion on same-sex marriage, for example, now affirmed in this country as a constitutional right, increasingly splits along generational lines.

Polls indicate that more than half of the 72 million Americans who identify as Catholic now reject church views on same-sex marriage and abortion. The ban on divorce is routinely violated.


The pope’s response has not been to change the rules of the church but to change its focus, embracing a standard more human than saintly.

It’s a balancing act to renew the interests of those Catholics wrestling with the strictures of their church without alienating those whose devotion never wavered.

In interviews with Times reporters, five American Catholics spoke frankly about their pope and their faith.

By the book


Jan Thomas’ first test of faith came in 1989, with a miscarriage. Half a dozen more failed pregnancies would follow.

She took solace in the belief that she would see her children in heaven — and in her seven successful births.

“You go through the grieving process,” said Thomas, 59. “But the only thing you have to hang on to is your faith.”

Thomas strictly adheres to the church doctrine she was raised on in New Berlin, the central Illinois farm town where she still lives and where her grandparents helped build the Catholic church.


She sees no room for exceptions to the church’s teachings and its opposition to gay marriage, abortion, ordination of women as priests. She loves the sinner but hates the sin, and believes gay people should be celibate.

Before she married her husband, who had been divorced, she insisted that he get an annulment. They run a business certifying food workers in safe handling practices.

Thomas, who traveled to Philadelphia to glimpse Francis, said she saw no sign that he intends to change doctrine. To do so, she said, would be a betrayal of his duty as pope.

What he is changing, she said, is the church’s tone to one more loving, more welcoming.


She said she took a lesson from his “who am I to judge” comment in 2013 regarding gay people serving as priests.

“My heart has softened over the years. We can all do a lot better,” she said. “If the pope can’t judge, then we shouldn’t either.”

A call to activism

Andrea Leon-Grossmann was watching the news one day when a story came on about yet another priest accused of molesting a boy.


The case stood out for her: She recognized this priest. She had taken communion from him.

And the alleged victim was in the Los Angeles juvenile detention center where she volunteered as a mentor.

It was not the only time her faith in church leadership would waver.

Leon-Grossmann was born into Catholicism, with two nuns and a priest in her family tree. Growing up in Mexico City, she hewed closely to its teachings. Even after she moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to study art, she attended church each Sunday.


Her religion’s focus on service spoke to her most forcefully. She started volunteering at the jail and joined demonstrations supporting undocumented immigrants.

Yet she was painfully aware of the ways the church seemed to function in opposition to her vision of Catholicism.

During Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, she said, the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus came to her church to urge congregants to vote against him — and support Proposition 8, the ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage.

“I couldn’t stand it,” Leon-Grossmann said. “In my faith, God tells me that I need to love everyone.”


She stopped attending church regularly and threw herself into activism.

In 2013, she and other activists brought a petition with more than 10,000 signatures to the residence of Roger Mahony, the L.A. cardinal who had helped conceal sexual abuse by priests. They urged him not to go to Rome to help choose the next pope.

Mahony went. But Leon-Grossmann, a 42-year-old art director, was encouraged by the papal enclave’s outcome.

“Something the pope said that resonated deeply with me this morning: ‘A good Catholic meddles in politics,’” Leon-Grossmann said Thursday. “I completely agree.”


But she is not ready to resume regular church attendance.

An inside view

When Joseph Genito told his parents he wanted to be a priest, they pleaded with him to reconsider.

They had raised him Catholic, but he was their only son — with a duty to carry on the family name.


Genito had his own doubts. He worried he would regret not having a family. And during the Vietnam War, he felt his generation’s anti-establishment pull.

“Kids my age were really questioning authority,” said Genito, who grew up in upstate New York. “We were breaking from traditions, and the priesthood is a very traditional role.”

In the end, he followed the call of God. Today he is Father Joe at St. Rita of Cascia in South Philadelphia.

“I chose a way of life that allowed me to be part of many families,” he said.


The congregants tend to be older, with traditional views.

Genito gently encourages them to be more open-minded. “It’s difficult because the traditional church teaching tends to reinforce homophobia,” he said. “I’m hoping at some point we’re going to be enlightened.”

Encouraged by the pope, he believes change is coming, to his community and to church doctrine.

Younger families and immigrants are joining St. Rita’s.


Genito senses it may not be long before priests are allowed to marry.

At 66, he fondly remembers the dramatic overhaul of church rules five decades ago: the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged Catholics to befriend people of other faiths and allowed Mass to be conducted in languages other than Latin.

At the time, those were seen as radical changes.



Fresh out of college, Jillian Matundan moved to New York for a fellowship observing city agencies. Her first full day at the Fire Department was Sept. 11, 2001.

“How could God let something like that happen?” she said of the terrorist attacks.

Catholicism provided no satisfying answers.

Her questioning hardened into opposition in 2004 after a U.S. archbishop denied communion to John F. Kerry, then a senator and presidential candidate, because he supports abortion rights.


To Matundan, a born-and-raised Catholic whose parents had immigrated from the Philippines, the church doctrines seemed out of touch.

She stopped attending services and began studying other major religions. She still believes in God but says she doesn’t know “what he or she looks like.”

Still, she has never escaped the draw of the faith. She watched the funeral of Pope John Paul II and followed the papal succession.

At a friend’s last-minute invitation, Matundan went to see Pope Francis last week outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, where she lives. “I found myself all caught up, taking pictures and trying to get closer,” she said.


Catholicism suddenly felt less remote.

“All this time, I’ve felt I totally disagree with my church, it doesn’t want me, it doesn’t want people who think like me,” said the 36-year-old labor organizer. “And here’s this guy who says you have to have compassion for everybody.”

Eternal optimism

Jeffrey Stone grew up in Maine in an observant Catholic family. He and his four siblings prayed each night.


By his teens, he realized that he was gay. He kept it to himself.

In college, he drifted from the church, attending only on Christmas and Easter. In 1977, he moved to New York, joined the book publishing industry and found a home in the emerging gay rights movement.

“There was so much optimism,” he said.

Much to his surprise, he said, coming out of the closet triggered a spiritual reawakening. “I began to feel that this is how God made me. It was actually a spiritual experience for me to accept myself.”


He found a Catholic church and began attending services again.

At the time, the church was pushing back hard against gay activists as a moral threat.

But the more he and his friends felt shunned by the church, the more they wanted a place in it. “This church belongs to us, too,” Stone said. “Our grandparents and parents built this church.”

His indignation was amplified by the realization that many clergy members were gay.


Stone said he has never wavered in his commitment to his faith — or in his belief that the church someday will fully accept gay people.

Now 60, he is a spokesman for Dignity, a gay Catholic activist organization. He attends Sunday services led by Catholic priests in an Episcopal Church. His partner of 20 years also is Catholic.

He called Francis’ apparent acceptance of gay priests “electrifying,” but felt let down this week upon hearing the pope speak of threats to the family and to marriage.

“I think there are certain points in evolution of human consciousness,” Stone said. “I think we saw it with slavery. We saw it with women. And I think we’re now seeing it with gay people and with trans people. I think 100 years from now, people will look back and say, if there is a Catholic Church, what was all the fuss about?”





Times staff writers Joseph Tanfani and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Philadelphia, Tina Susman in New York and Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.