The Block Island Times

Father Joe sees hope in Pope Francis

Will there be room for women in the Priesthood?
By Gloria S. Redlich | Apr 21, 2013
Source: File photo Father Joe Protano.

Father Joseph Protano is eager to talk about Pope Francis.

As the priest at St. Andrew Catholic Church on Block Island, Father Joe as he is more familiarly known, is optimistic that Pope Francis will bring significant change to the church — including reaching out to other faith groups and eventually expanding the role of women within the church.

Although he is still learning about the former Argentinian Cardinal, who was born Jorge Maria Bergoglio, Father Protano said Pope Francis was a runner up in the Papal election of Benedict XVI in 2005. He said that Francis’ popularity within the most recent conclave of Cardinals was validated with the “support of more than the two-thirds needed for his election.”

Though several of the news services have reported on rivalries within the church in the run-up to the most recent papal election, Father Protano said it became obvious that “most of the cardinals really wanted him.” Father Protano explains why: “He’s extraordinary. When he was a priest, through his Jesuit position, he was the head of Jesuits in his region [in Buenos Aires]. He’s an extraordinarily humble man, a people’s man.”

The fact that Francis is a Jesuit is significant to Father Protano for several reasons. “Jesuits are communitarians and have a very strong bond with one another,” he said. They view themselves as a brotherhood that governs itself through consultation and consensus, methods Father Protano embraces.

“We’ve been looking for collegiality at all levels of the church, so people are looking to him to finish the work of Vatican II,” the council established in 1962 under Pope John XXIII. Its purpose was to address the relationship of the church to the modern world, and Vatican II ran until 1965, when it was closed by Pope Paul VI.

Associates with the downtrodden and marginalized

One of the concepts of Vatican II, according to Father Protano, is to ask  “How do we govern ourselves?” The response was  “We must use the collegial model,” said Father Protano.

The new Pope put these ideas into practice, as Father Protano pointed out, by calling the bishops and cardinals ‘brothers’ — not using the usual terminology, such as  “Your Eminence.”

“In his case, he lives humbly, associates with the humble, downtrodden and marginalized, and there is no ostentatiousness about him at all,” Father Joe said.

Before being elevated to Pontiff, Francis was Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with jurisdiction over what Father Joe called  “a substantial diocese,” encompassing areas in which the very wealthy and powerful lived as well as areas that have been called “the worse slums on earth,” he said. The island priest said the former Cardinal Bergoglio was called “a dweller among slum dwellers” and while he was both Cardinal and Archbishop, Father Bergoglio lived in his own apartment, making his own meals and taking public transportation — circumstances Father Protano finds remarkable.

Rejecting the trappings of power

Now, as Pope, he appears to be creating a shift in traditions, rejecting the ostentatious trappings of his powerful new role: “He isn’t taking possession of the papal palace, living [instead] in a guest house,” Father Protano said, noting it is furnished in very basic ways. The Pope eats with the guests in a communal dining room in order to be among the people.

Furthermore, Father Protano sees the demeanor of Pope Francis as an indication of the kind of Pope he will be. “The shoes he wore to Rome were made of leather, just as those most of us wear to work. He’s also rejected the Papal limousine and is going around in a Volkswagen.” Francis has disdained the ostentatious apparel that has adorned previous Popes. These choices, said Father Protano, are an effort to make “everything simple.”

Citing a moment immediately after Pope Francis was elected that reflected the new Pontiff’s accessibility and humility, Father Protano described the Pope coming out to greet the people, choosing not to stand on a platform above the cardinals, but rather among them.

Pope Francis then deviated even more from tradition by asking the 150,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Square to bless him in silent prayer before he blessed them. Finding that act extraordinary, Father Protano said the Pope must have given his decisions “a lot of thought, for he literally bent over and waited for the people’s blessings.” The silence of so many people waiting was astonishing, Father Protano added.

The importance of a name

It is also significant to Father Protano that Cardinal Bergoglio has taken the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who is thought of in the church as  “the holiest man since Jesus Christ.” Father Protano asks, “Isn’t it amazing that no one has used the name of Francis before? It was too sacrosanct.” St. Francis followed his divine mission “to build up the Church on earth and specifically modeled himself on Jesus Christ in word and action,” St. Francis is renowned for ministering to the poor and ill.

Originally from an affluent family, St. Francis cast off the trappings of the material world to follow a spiritual road, and Father Protano sees Pope Francis as having modeled himself on his namesake throughout his life.

Francis would visit the poorest areas of his country, and according to Father Protano he is currently encouraging bishops and cardinals to work in the slums. The idea of a worker priest originated in France, but shouldn’t be confused with Liberation Theology, which conservative Catholics view as too political to be involved in, Father Protano adds.

According to Father Protano, this Pope has criticized Liberation Theology (which began as a reaction to social injustice and seeks changes in governments) as based too much on Marxism. Instead, Francis advocates  “a different kind of revolution, preaching a good, solid social system by identifying with the poor and not the rich. This is the way Jesus did it,” Father Protano says.

He adds that the changes implicit in Francis’ words and actions are very significant.  “They are very dramatic,” he adds. He noted that in his very first appointments, he has selected men and women from a variety of backgrounds, which makes Father Protano confident the Pope will insist on collegiality and consensus as the means of resolving issues.

Facing hard issues

As to the scandals that have wracked the church over the past decade and more, Father Protano said Pope Francis has already begun moving to confront the difficulties these issues pose. The Pope, he said, has directed each bishop in the world to report all incidents of alleged harm done to individuals by clergy to the local police. He said that these cases will be decided by law.

Father Protano also said the Pope is committing the church to investigate and even dismiss those individuals that are responsible of violating moral and spiritual laws.

Quoting a line from the new Pope, Father Protano said, “Let’s not be afraid of something new.” He believes that Pope Francis will reinvigorate the church as one that serves the poor, so that it becomes “a church that comes down closer to the people.”

Adding that he “hopes it will be a different papacy than what we’ve been used to in the last 50 years,” Father Protano is certain the new Pope will “attract young men and women to the religious life.” He is hopeful that “this will be an interesting papal tenure — exciting, challenging, frustrating, embarrassing and dramatic.”

The new Pope, Father Protano explained, is a man of strong convictions, who “if he believes something will stick with it.” For that reason, he predicts there will be changes in the status quo within the church.

“Pope Francis will initiate very meaningful change that will go to the depths of the church,” Father Protano said, adding that it is quite conceivable to him that Pope Francis may open the way for women to become deacons.


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