‘Fireside chat’ focuses on Pope Francis

by Kaihtlyn Schlacter

ATCHISON — The “Francis effect” — or how Pope Francis is shaking up the Catholic Church and the world — was the subject of a “fireside chat” led by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at Benedictine College here on March  4.

For the past few years, Benedictine College has invited the archbishop to visit with senior theology and philosophy majors about a designated topic on which the students have prepared. Students then gather around a fireplace with the archbishop to discuss the topic.

The event was inspired by the visit of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, to Benedictine in 2010. Cardinal Schonborn talked about how he used to take classes from then-Cardinal Ratzinger. After graduation, each summer, Cardinal Ratzinger joined his old students on a retreat that featured informal discussions on the theological and philosophical issues of the day. Even as Pope Benedict XVI, he continued those retreats.

Archbishop Naumann wanted to create the same kind of experience in the archdiocese, said Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis.

“When Pope Benedict got together with his former students, as Cardinal Schonborn discussed, it was more of a give-and-take,” said Minnis. “It wasn’t an ‘I’m the boss here.’ It was really a discussion among equals, and that’s what the archbishop was hoping would happen at our place, too.”

The group, comprised of some 40 students and faculty members, discussed America magazine’s interview with Pope Francis and his legacy.

“It’s a very pertinent subject,” said Ian O’Hagan, a theology major. Pope Francis has ruffled feathers and challenged Catholics to gain a better understanding of our faith, he said.

“One of our priests said the other day, ‘I used to think I was a pretty good priest until Pope Francis came along,’” said Archbishop Naumann. “Almost every day, he’s saying something that is challenging us.”

The group discussed Pope Francis’ emphasis on first showing people that we care about them and that we see them as good — then inviting them to Christ.

“This is totally in sync with what Benedict and John Paul II were also saying, but I think Francis has a way of making it capture people’s minds more because he’s acting it out,” said Archbishop Naumann.

Erin Daugherty, a philosophy and political science double major, brought up Pope Francis’ stance on women’s roles in the church and his challenge to engage women in leadership in different ways than before.

Pope Francis has indicated that the question of the ordination of women is not going to be reopened, Archbishop Naumann said.

“He’s speaking from his own experience in Argentina, and I’m not sure what his experience was there,” he said.

In the United States, many women have assumed roles of significant leadership, the archbishop noted.

“The sexes at their best help draw out what is good and best in one another and part of that comes from respecting the distinctions that there are between us as male and female — and the equality,” he added.

Another subject brought up by a student was “the Francis effect.” This refers to the renewed interest in the Catholic Church by the media and non-Catholics due to Pope Francis’ immense popularity.

The consensus among the group was that the “Francis effect” is good, but offers challenges.

“He’s been great for the church, but he’s a real challenge as a bishop,” said Archbishop Naumann. “There are a lot of things that Pope Francis says that you have to explain.

“But he’s provided us with a lot of teachable moments because people are actually interested in figuring [out] what the pope is saying.”

Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” is a good example, said Archbishop Naumann. The phrase is being used against Catholics making moral stances.

“He is saying that we should have mercy, that we should have compassion, but he’s not saying that there are no moral rules in the church,” explained the archbishop.

Minnis brought up how society seems to say that people can either love the church or serve others, but can’t do both. The media has portrayed Pope Francis as valuing the service of others over loving the church, he said.

Archbishop Naumann explained how this, too, distorts the pope’s message.

“If we love the church, which means we love the church’s spouse, Jesus Christ, our capacity to serve others is so much greater,” he said. “If we’re true sons and daughters of the church, true brothers of Jesus Christ, then we love humanity more, and we love humanity for who we, as human beings, truly are.”

At the conclusion of the event, students expressed gratitude for the chance to visit with the archbishop in this informal way.

“It really helped to put a lot of my own personal thoughts into concrete terms,” said Brigita Rotacy, a philosophy and theology major.

And philosophy major Vladimir Mauricico-Perez saw Archbishop Naumann’s visit to Atchison as a reflection of the very closeness to the people that Pope Francis is encouraging.

“The archbishop’s coming to be here with us reflects what a shepherd is like,” he said.

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