Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

A lapsed Catholic takes a new look at the church

Post by Brian O'Neill on March 22, 2013 at 10:05 am with 11 Comments »
April 10, 2013 7:57 am

This is a column about the recent installation of Pope Francis as the head of a billion Roman Catholics. While it does not relate to the normal police-related topics of Blue Byline, it was too intriguing to pass up. 

As some people have pointed out to me in the past, I am a bit of a stereotype. Son of an Irish immigrant, Catholic by default and a cop by choice, I’ll admit my life does sound like a cliche.

That includes a typical Catholic education which started the first day of kindergarten, when my mom dropped me off with Sister Mary Felicitas, and ended when Father Ryan handed me my diploma thirteen years later. This was a common path for the many sons and daughters in San Francisco – a Catholic smorgasbord of Irish, Italian and Filipino immigrants – who grew up in its parishes.

The nuns taught me how to split infinitives, dodge a swinging ruler (for elderly women dressed like penguins, they were super quick), and play the holy game of basketball.

The Jesuits, on the other hand, taught me to think.

Better known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are a holy order of priests whose origins date back to the sixteenth century. Over half a millenia they have gained notoriety as missionaries, but many have also lived their faith as scientists and physicians, musicians and social workers. Fortunately for my friends and I, the Jesuits excel as educators.

Pope Francis / courtesy of
Pope Francis / courtesy of

This is an important distinction now more than ever, because the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is not only a Jesuit, but the first one to sit the throne of Saint Peter. The question is, does the “SJ” at the end of the new pope’s given name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, really matter?


In today’s Catholic church, where “Lapsed” seems to have replaced “Roman” as a qualifier,  there is growing impatience with the Vatican status quo. In a world where hunger, overpopulation and AIDS are causing catastrophic suffering and death, the church is distracted by pedophile priests and feminist nuns. Its evangelical message is distorted by visions of purple-robed princes of the church wandering through the Vatican’s priceless art collection and Swiss guardsmen flying the retired Benedict XVI to his new villa in the papal helicopter.

That is disconnect writ large.

The current image of the church contrasts sharply with my experience as a student at a Jesuit high school. There we were taught to value freedom of thought, kindness towards others and to live our lives with the welfare of others foremost in our minds. Despite the cynicism I have been harboring, those lessons inspire me to this day.

So the new guy has a lot of work to do. Fortunately, he has already begun the recalibrations. In the first few days of his papacy, Pope Francis has exemplified his “SJ” creds by wading fearlessly into crowds, paying his own bills and foregoing the luxurious cars, rings and wardrobes of his predecessors. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, is the right man for the job, and his installation as the 266th leader of Roman Catholics worldwide suggests the church is ready for his cleansing leadership.

The new Pope’s Jesuit resume makes me hopeful that the Roman Catholic Church can recreate itself anew, a bastion of free thinkers, a beacon for those seeking inspiration and a place where love of one’s neighbor and selfless example are the only treasures worth collecting.

I can’t help but think that is the type of church a humble carpenter’s son from Nazareth would appreciate.

Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. He blessed a guide dog on his first day. He’s got my vote.

  2. the Church overall is not nearly as corrupt and frankly, evil, as it was 300 years ago. Especially with the rise of Martin Luther and the Protestant reformation. The Catholic church’s excesses and localized issues pale in comparison to, oh, the inquisition, for example. The church isn’t nearly as meddlesome in foreign relations and power politics as days gone by. Perhaps my viewpoint is biased, living in a country that doesn’t kowtow to the Vatican or cares as much about who is elected pope.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more! Just look at the photo of the Pope above and look at those bright eyes and big smile. Doesn’t it just make you feel good inside? When the new Pope was elected and made his first public appearance, I could feel a big global exhalation from Catholics around the world. This is the man that they have been waiting for; this is the man that will soothe and help heal old wounds; this is the man who will spring forth a fountain full of fresh ideas. Yes, this is the man for the job!

  4. TheButlerDidIt says:

    Sorry, Brian but your excuses are a cop out (sorry, no pun intended).

    I am not saying that the church doesn’t need some serious reflection (especially in the case of pedophile priests), but trying to somehow link the church as blind or ambivalent to the problems of hunger, overpopulation, AIDS, etc is heavy-handed to say the least.

    You should know that the Catholic Church is the largest social service agency and caregiver in the world. Yeah, so there is a bit of excess at the Vatican (much the same could be said of our own politicians and Wash DC). The Church still manages to provide for those in need in many countries of the world where the government has failed those people.

    Personally, I have issues with the church certain issues, but that doesn’t keep me from attending mass (every Sunday).

    Some people don’t go to church because they say they don’t get anything out of it. But that’s not the point – you go to give, to give back to God.

    How about it?

    PS: I do like the choice of the new pope.

  5. Brian O'Neill says:

    butlerdidit- Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree that the Catholic Church has a global outreach unlike any other. Priests, nuns, volunteer missionaries and other members of the faithful are a huge presence around the developing corners of the world.

    However, much of the poverty in the Catholic sphere of influence can be directly attributed to the heavy-handed messages emanating from the Vatican. Obviously, I’m referring to birth control. The church’s disdain for condoms has led to disease and overpopulation in many parts of the Catholic world.

    That level of disconnect is, as I mentioned, consistent with the limos, castles and all the excess that has no place in a religion which preaches that a rich man will find no place in heaven.

    We may not agree on the specifics, but we both like the new guy. Hopefully the hypocrisy will lessen over time.

  6. TheButlerDidIt says:

    I do agree that the church needs to take a look at birth control, and it does acknowledge the issue with a wink and a nod by advocating for the “rhythm method.” Preventing birth is a bit of a gray area for the church though, because the next step is aborting a birth, which is a very black-and-white area (and I agree with the church on this one).

    BTW, add to my list letting priests marry. We need the priests, and there already are married priests (ones who are already married and choose to enter the priesthood).

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    Ditto. ‘Nuff said.

  8. lucidmeri says:

    Hello Brian,

    I am so very happy that you’re considering returning to the Church. I returned after a very long time away for the best reason ever – The Holy Eucharist! Brian, I was given the most amazing blessing of realizing what it authentically meant to believe in the “Real Presence” and once I came to the realization that I, truly, was receiving the Lord of the universe – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity into my soul – everything changed for me – everything! I desired Our Lord in Holy Communion – so much – I even returned to Confession after a thirty year absence; just so I could receive Him worthily!

    Brian, may Our Lord Jesus – the Divine Lover of our beloved and immortal souls grant you the sublime grace and privilege of receiving Him once again in Holy Communion.

    Warm regards,


  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment, Mary.

  10. BellPepper says:

    Thank You Brian,
    Have you ever considered Listening to your local Catholic Radio station Sacred Heart Radio on AM-1050. Its a great resource for learning about the faith and helps clarify misconceptions that people may have about the church. Pope Francis has been on the radio quite a bit lately since being elected pope and Easter week.

    God Bless you on your journey,

  11. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ron. I’m sure the station is an excellent resource, but after thirteen years of Catholic education I am under no misperceptions about the teachings of the church.

    My primary concern is how it follows through.

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