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Jesuit uses hard data to assess where church is headed with Pope Francis


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"Can Francis Change the Church?" by Thomas Sweetser, SJ. Crossroad (Chestnut Ridge, New York, 2019). 174 pp., $16.95.

What difference is Pope Francis making on the church? This is the basic question on which this book reports. Rather than being a summary of wishful thinking on the church's future, it's based on empirical data collected by the Jesuit author over a number of years. Founder of the Parish Evaluation Project in 1973, Father Thomas Sweetser continues to serve as a facilitator and consultant to parishes.

For this book, the author first surveyed a sampling of 55 practicing and former Catholics chosen to represent women and men and a wide sampling of ages from 20 to over 80. In an appendix, Father Sweetser explains his methodology in detail. It will be interesting to learn what professional sociologists think of this methodology since the book's value depends heavily on the validity of this methodology.

"Can Francis Change the Church?" includes 14 chapters divided into two sections: "The Before" and "The After." The first reports on survey data collected prior to the election of Pope Francis, the second repeats the process carried out after Cardinal Bergoglio became pope and chose the name Francis. One characteristic of virtually all of the comments from those surveyed is how familiar their words sound. Anyone paying attention to the opinions of Catholics and ex-Catholics in the last 20 or 30 years will find the comments quoted here familiar, indeed.

One admirable characteristic of this admirable book is that Father Sweetser includes observations and suggestions that pastors and lay parish leaders can consult for ways to improve parish life and structures. At the same time, what the reader gets is "Here is what people are saying about this," not much in the way of "Here are some specific changes to make to cultivate a better parish."

The title of this book poses a question: "Can Francis Change the Church?" If one wanted to summarize the book's reply it may well be: "Maybe." There is no question that Pope Francis is having a significant impact. Active Catholics are largely encouraged by him, although many conservative Catholics -- a segment not much represented here -- tend to disapprove of Pope Francis. Some who gave up on the church were inspired by the new pope to return, but others chose to remain "exes."

At this point in the book one wonders about efforts to reach out to ex-Catholics with convincing reasons to return. Or do parishes largely let the disaffected leave and stay gone with no response at all? There are good, spiritual reasons to stay that require an adult faith, but who ever hears about them? Talk about material for homilies that Catholics will actually listen to.

"Can Francis change the Church?" may be the most accurate report so far on what Catholics and former Catholics are thinking and saying about the church since the arrival of Pope Francis. It makes excellent reading to clarify one's own thoughts on the topic.

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Finley is the author of more than 30 books on popular Catholic theological topics, including "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those In Between," "What Faith is Not" and "The Seeker's Guide to Being Catholic."

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