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Pope’s Remarks Draw Upper Valley Support

Hanover — Parishioners leaving the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church Sunday had a largely favorable response to Pope Francis’ remarks released last week stating that the church’s focus on divisive issues such as gay marriage, abortion and contraception has the potential to make the church “fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel.”

Since assuming the papacy in March, Pope Francis, 76, has pushed a mission of serving the poor, oppressed and marginalized, calling for greater tolerance and acceptance within the Church.

His comments have evoked mixed and strong responses from leaders and followers of the Catholic Church.

“I’m delighted by what he said,” said Father Francis Belanger, the pastor at St. Denis Catholic Church in Hanover and interim director of Dartmouth College’s Catholic Center, Aquinas House. Father Francis referenced the pontiff’s remarks in sermons Sunday to both his St. Denis and Aquinas House congregations. “What the pope is saying is that there are all kinds of aspects of faith and teachings. But overriding them all is the love God has for everyone and the mercy that comes through Christ.”

Isa Francisco is a senior at Dartmouth College and a member of the Aquinas House congregation.

“I’ve always struggled with Catholicism being the bad guy of religion,” she said. “It meant a lot to me that this pope is trying to cast us in a new image, and focus on what I think is really important about Catholicism, which is getting away from doctrine-heavy issues and dedicating your life to God in ways that are personal and unique to you.”

Roger Hanlon, of Thetford, a St. Denis parishioner, said that he approved of the pope’s remarks. “I got the sense that he’s impatient, and I think his remarks can make people start thinking about the important issues,” Hanlon said.

Erland Schulson, of Hanover, agreed. “I think the pope is reminding us of what we already know,” he said. “The church teaches a way of life — teaches, not judges.”

The interview was conducted by the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, over three sessions at Pope Francis’ home at the Vatican guesthouse. On Thursday, it was published simultaneously by 16 Jesuit journals across the globe, including America, a national Catholic weekly magazine.

The interview marked one of the first times Pope Francis has spoken publicly about the contentious issues of gay marriage, abortion and contraception, which church teaching opposes. Though in July he attracted global attention for saying “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” regarding a gay member of the clergy, he has remained largely silent on these issues, which has brought him criticism from many in the church.

In the interview released last week, he commented on this silence, explaining that he had eschewed discussion about the issues. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” he said, in the interview that was published in America. “But it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He berated the church as “obsessed” with schismatic social issues. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said in the interview. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”

Though Pope Francis did not express support for gay marriage, abortion or contraception, he did call for increased inclusiveness and openness.

“I think these issues are relevant, they are the teachings of the church,” said Paul Sansone, a Catholic from Hanover , who read the 12,000 word interview in its entirety. “But I think what the pope is saying is that they have to be approached from a context of love and non-judgment.”

“We all want the same things,” added St. Denis parishioner, Joe Anderson of Hanover. “We want to be happy, we want our kids to be educated — I think the more people see each other for the commonalities we share rather than the differences regarding social issues, the better.”

Since publication, the interview has sparked a stream of headlines worldwide, largely focusing on the controversial issues of the interview.

“The media presented it in a way that made it seem like it was some sort of alteration happening,” said Sansone. “But I think actually what he’s proposing is beautiful: he’s trying to bring us back to a fundamental approach of love towards everybody.”

Pope Francis’ remarks do not change church teachings or policy, but are a marked shift in tone, pointing the focus away from political issues and towards a more welcoming church, a “home of all.”

José Manuel del Pino, a member of the St. Denis congregation and a professor of Spanish at Dartmouth College said “these remarks are in the direction of open-mindedness and inclusively. They don’t mean that he approves of these ideas, but he does want to address them in a more open way.”

“He’s not changing anything we believe, but he’s certainly putting a new emphasis,” said Father Francis. “His emphasis was to say that the church should not be only identifiable by certain contentious topics, but by a love of God.”

“I can’t explain how happy I was reading his remarks,” said Francisco. “He’s such a great image and leader to be proud of in Catholicism.”