Some cheer openness of pope's message, others stress doctrine

Linda Moss / The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) /

Published Sep 28, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Jan 16, 2014 at 01:54PM

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

“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.”