If Geri Callaghan had any input on the selection of the next pope — of course, she doesn’t — this lifelong Catholic could come up with a quick wish list.
“Someone who will openly address the sex-abuse scandal. It’s a stain on our church and it hasn’t been dealt with in the way it should,” she says. “We need a man of God with no hidden agenda. And let’s address all this wealth at the Vatican. So many parishes are struggling, yet you got all this money in Rome. We put our popes in robes and we treat them like kings. That’s just not right.”
Callaghan, 74, a member of Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, is unwavering in her faith. Her Catholicism defines her life and means everything to her.
But with the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, she and many of the faithful are using this lame-duck period to talk about some of the church’s pressing needs and the type of man who could best address them.
According to a just-released poll by the Pew Research Center, Callaghan’s views are reflective of 34 percent of American Catholics, who consider the sex-abuse scandal the most important problem facing the church today. When asked about the church’s most important contribution, 27 percent agreed it is serving those in need through works such as helping the poor, feeding the hungry and healing the sick.
Pew also reports that U.S. Catholics are divided on what direction the new pope should take the church. Forty-six percent called for a “new” direction; 51 percent want him to maintain “traditional” positions. A majority think the new pope should allow priests to marry (58 percent), and 60 percent would like him to come from a developing nation.
Ultimately, the decision on the next leader of the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics rests with 115 cardinals meeting in a secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel. That’s why Leo Blumhagen of St. Petersburg doesn’t even want to speculate about a future pope.
“Our church is not a democracy. As Americans, we find that hard to understand,” says Blumhagen, a convert who serves as a third-order Carmelite, a lay order. “We are a top-down church, not a bottom-up church. Always has been, always will be, because that’s just as Jesus designed it.”
And Blumhagen has no problem with that. Truth doesn’t change, he says, even though people’s opinions do.
That “truth” doesn’t resonate with Katy Satsick of Sarasota, who was ordained through the Fort Myers-based Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, a noncanonical movement that recognizes female clergy. She says she was called to the priesthood years ago, but if she waited for the church to accept women in that role, “It never would have happened in my lifetime.”
Because she isn’t recognized by the hierarchy, Satsick cannot perform priestly duties in a recognized church. Instead, she presides over small groups in “intentional Eucharistic communities” that generally meet in homes.
“Women are second-class citizens in the church,” she says. “It’s a spiritual dictatorship that’s in place now. The cardinals and bishops in power now are just old men trying to build up their kingdom, not Christ’s.”
A pope who would give women the equality they deserve would be an answer to her prayers. But she’s not counting on it.
“I had to move forward on my own because the church wouldn’t,” she says. “I hope my ordination will inspire generations of women to come. The status quo doesn’t have to be in place forever.”
Retired Berkeley Prep math teacher Manny Suarez is also hoping the winds of change will shift dramatically and usher in an American pope, specifically, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston.
He knows the chances are slim, but Suarez remains hopeful the “Holy Spirit will intervene and determine otherwise.”
Suarez says there are many reasons why O’Malley, a Capuchin friar, is the best choice for these times. At 68, he’s youthful, at least by Vatican standards. His diplomatic skills were put to use in handling the bitter aftermath of Cardinal Bernard Law’s cover-up of the sex scandal in Boston. He also was dispatched to the Archdiocese of Dublin to examine similar allegations there.
O’Malley’s modest ways and his pastoral manner earn high compliments from Catholics who want an extreme makeover at the Vatican. His social-media savvy would appeal to a younger generation, Suarez says, and his fluency in Spanish is critical to connecting with the growing number of Hispanic Catholics.
“He would be a pope for all people,” Suarez says. “Though I’m not sure he would like the title. He prefers to be called Father Sean.”
Larry Vaughan is the president of the Tampa Bay area chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed after the sex-abuse crisis erupted in Boston and spread throughout the country. Its goals haven’t change since its 2002 inception: support survivors of clergy sex abuse, support priests of integrity and shape structural change.
He often is asked why he didn’t leave the church, where change is slow to come, if it comes at all.
“I’m Catholic. It’s who I am,” he says. “But I don’t lose any sleep about this pope thing coming up. We have no influence. I prefer to concentrate on the things we can change.”
He would like to see laypeople have more input on the selection of bishops, who wield the power in the dioceses. He wants more financial accountability at the local level. And watchdog groups like Voice of the Faithful need to remain diligent about making sure rules that prevent sexual abuse and protect victims are followed.
On his wish list for the next pope?
“If a pope is addressed as a father, I would hope he really is a father,” says Vaughan, who supports the married priesthood.
Fellow Voice of the Faithful member Suzanne Lynch of Sun City Center is weary of her church being disparaged for its handling of the abuse scandal. That can be changed, she says, by electing a pope who is transparent and truthful. The right person can restore confidence.
“We need someone who is pastoral, not a dictator,” she says. “We’ve put up with elitism and protecting the institution for far too long. Enough already. If things don’t change, Catholics will continue to vote with their feet and just leave.”
Michael Brennan, a “cradle Catholic” who left the church for about two decades, returned in 1985. In those 20 years, he sampled a wide range of religions and denominations, but Brennan came back to Catholicism because he was convinced it was the “one true faith instituted by Christ.”
That doesn’t mean he turns a blind eye to some of its failings, Brennan says. In his opinion, the “homosexual agenda” has damaged the priesthood. As a supporter of traditional marriage, he would like clergy to have the option to marry. But allowing women to become priests? Never, he says.
“Women and men bring different gifts to the table. If Jesus wanted women in the priesthood, he would have done it when he picked his 12 apostles. He would have made his mother and Mary Magdalene priests,” Brennan, a retired nurse, says. “The church doesn’t have the authority to change what Christ instituted. This has nothing to do with feminism.”
Being able to connect with youth is considered pivotal to the growth of the church. The late Pope John Paul II, who launched the popular World Youth Day event, had that ability; many think that Benedict, nearly 80 when he was elected, did not.
Robert Minton, 17, is among that target group. The senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa summarized specific qualities he would like in the next leader of his church.
“A kind, passionate figure who has the physical strength to travel and be visible all over the world,” Minton says. “Someone who is a strong intellectual and will be firm in taking stands, even if they’re not always popular.”
But the challenges ahead for the future pope are daunting, he concedes, given the spread of relativism in a secular society.
“That’s why we have so many cafeteria and armchair Catholics who pick and choose what they want to believe, and so many who just drift away,” he says. “For me, that doesn’t work. I like the structure and the guidelines the church gives me. It keeps me grounded in this life I’m living on this Earth and prepares me for the life after this.”
Melissa Gerardi of South Tampa was one of those Catholics who drifted away after high school, much to the dismay of her mother, Geri Callaghan.
But after she and her husband started raising their family, a desire to give their children a faith foundation grew stronger. Now, five of their six sons — ages 15 and 12, 10-year-old twins and a 2-year-old — are taking religious education classes so they can receive their first Communion in May. The oldest son also will be confirmed at that time.
Gerardi still has reservations about her church. She isn’t convinced about the safety in sending her sons away on retreat weekends with clergy she doesn’t know.
“I’m with my mother on this. I don’t think the abuse scandal was handled right,” she says. “What I love about my church is its sacredness, not its secrecy. I know there are still questions that need to be answered and work to be done.
“Still, I’m happy to be home. This is where I belong.”