By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Millions of Catholics in Cuba, South America and now North America have been eagerly watching and listening to Pope Francis as he visits the Americas to engage and pray with the poorest and the powerful among us.
There is no group more excited than the 900 families and the leaders of Norfolk’s Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
The historic church, which sits in the center of downtown Norfolk, is the oldest and believed by the church to be the lone predominately Black Catholic Basilica in the United States.
The Church’s Rector, Rev. Father Jim Curran, has been invited by U.S. Congressman Robert Scott to attend the joint session of Congress when the Pontiff speaks there on Wednesday.
A number of St. Mary’s parishioners will be attending a rally the Pope will host on the National Mall after he visits President Barack H. Obama and his family at the White House.
The Guide talked to a number of the St. Mary faithful to survey their views about the Pope’s visits to the Americas.
This reporter also asked them about the Pope’s effort to address social and political issues which have caused a debate among the Church’s leadership and the millions who call Catholicism their spiritual home.
Pope Francis leads a Church which is still conservative in its practices and doctrines, especially on abortion and women in positions of Church leadership.
But time and progress are challenging the Holy See’s positions on these issues. Most of the growth of the Church is taking place in Africa, Asia and South America, where the Church’s leadership on those continents is still clinging to the conservative passages of the Church’s doctrines.
At the same time, Catholics in the United States are a bit more aggressive in challenging those long-standing doctrines, and are prone to call for reforms and progress on various issues.
For Instance, Pope Francis has written an ecclesial calling for political and scientific action on Global warming which many right-leaning Republican politicians in the U.S. have denounced.
He has called for easier annulment of marriages; for priests, beginning next year, to forgive women who have had abortions; and he has asked “whom am I to judge?” on the issue of the lifestyles of Gay men and women.
In Europe and Ireland, thousands left the church because of its inability to confront the issue of priests abusing children. But Pope Francis has addressed the issue with sanctions against offending priests and those who protected them.
To get on the National Mall the church held a lottery to distribute the thousands of tickets to church members.
Each of the members of Congress were given one ticket for a guest to hear the Pontiff’s speech before Congress this week.
Father Curran was given that opportunity, thanks to Congressman Robert Scott, who gave his lone guest ticket to Curran to sit in the House Chamber to the local priest.
“The Holy Father is not saying anything which is new,” said Curran, who has been the Rector at St. Mary for three years. “It seems that the conservative leaders of the church have been the dominating message. Now Pope Francis is talking about these issues of global warming and economic injustice, and I am glad he is saying them.
“Jesus said I do not come to change the law but the lawyers, … I do not wish to change the teaching but the teachers,” said Curran. “The conservative members of the church and politicians want to fixate on abortion and issues which fit their conservative views. Now Francis wants to talk about something different including good stewardship of the plan and mercy for the poor.”
Curran said the pews of St. Mary’s are filled with worshipers who “chose” to join the church as opposed to being cradle Catholics. This is a contrast to many predominately Catholic Churches where people experience cradle to grave communion.
Paulette Jones Morant lives in Arlington now. But she was born in Norfolk. Once upon a time while Whites attended St. Mary’s, four blocks away Blacks worshiped at the all-Black St. Joseph’s, which once ran a Catholic high school for Blacks until it was closed in 1956,
St. Joseph’s Parish was closed in 1961, and Blacks were reassigned to St. Mary. The White parishioners migrated to St. Gregory’s in Virginia Beach.
“Pope Francis has the right personality for this church at this time,” said Morant. “He has caused a lot of Catholics to return to the church who left for one reason or another. As a child, we saw the Catholic church in the South as a champion for civil rights and equality.
“Now the Pope is returning to that message,” said Morant, who became a Catholic at an early age.
“He is saying that trickle down economics did not work. He is not just talking a single issue, but many issues including social justice and saving the planet and the resources God gave us.”
Glen Mason is another cradle Catholic. He and Morant attended Norfolk Catholic High School, which desegregated and admitted Blacks before public schools in the area did.
As a child he recalls Popes John XXIII and then Paul.
“Pope Francis is the most popular Pope in a long time … not since John XXIII,” said Mason. “Under him Catholicism is having a very positive revolution and it is welcomed.
“He is very pragmatic and approaches his work with humanity,” said Mason. ”He is not a politician. He is addressing key issues especially, putting humanity above his office. It is fitting that he is meeting the nation’s first Black president during his visit. They are revolutionary and there will be a meeting of two intellectuals.”
Mason said he is not surprised that Pope Francis is addressing the issue of global warming despite push-back from conservative Republicans running for President “because he not only is a priest but he is a scientist and he is dealing with the facts others want to foolishly ignore.”
Mason said the African American Catholics he has talked with, “are responding well to the Pope’s messages which signals he is speaking on issues of freedom and human rights.”
Eric Brown, 65, is another cradle Catholic, who was born in Norfolk and now lives in Chesapeake. He spent his career as a retail salesman.
“I am glad he is coming to the United States,” said Brown. ”He has a refreshing voice and is showing mercy on LGBT rights, marriage annulment and global warming. We know that the Catholic Church is conservative, we know change will not come overnight. But at least Pope Francis is willing to listen.”
Brown said that many American Catholics are upbeat about Pope Francis contributing to the diplomatic opening between the United States and the Cuban government, which has oppressed religious expression under the Castro.