This article was a homework assignment for my Public Affairs Reporting class at TCU during the spring of 2014. It was never published on the109.org, TCU’s community news site, but this is the final story.
Recently, CNN Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr. visited TCU’s campus to speak about Pope Francis and his call to serve “the poorest, the weakest [and] the least important.”
Allen said that Francis’s popular appeal, media appeal and ability to change Vatican culture have had an impact on Catholicism worldwide.
The question remains, then, if this man has changed anything in the way Catholics serve their communities.
The answer in the 109 is that things have kind of changed, but not really.
There are 710,000 Catholics in the Fort Worth Diocese, who worship at a total of 89 parishes. Fr. John Shanahan is a priest at one of those parishes. He serves at St. Andrew’s Church on Dryden Road, and said that the pope’s preference for social justice issues is something that has always been present at St. Andrew’s.
“What the Holy Father is saying is nothing new,” Shanahan said. “Here at St. Andrew’s, this care for the unknown, for the poor, it’s always been there.”
Shanahan said that St. Andrew’s has operated a food pantry for the last 30 years that serves more than 400 people per week. A little over 200 people volunteer from the church every week.
The church also has a social justice committee that does prison outreach and helps care for battered women and children in the Fort Worth community, all done as a way to help care for the poor, Shanahan said.
“I don’t think this is because of anything Francis has said,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan did say that he would like to see his church do more in its care for the poor.
“Very often the people that need us the most are not the ones sitting next to us in the pews,” Shanahan said. “If there is anything new here with this papacy, I think there’s a call to continue to do what we’re doing, but also to stretch it out a little.”
Other churches in Fort Worth said that they have always served their communities, regardless of who was pope.
“We haven’t seen any discernable change in activism since his papacy,” said Michael King, president of Fisher More College, located on W. Shaw Street. “We’ve already been very service-oriented even since before Pope Francis.”
One of Fisher More’s requirements for its students is to participate in the St. Benedict Service Program, which mandates that students serve the college and the community in “overall operations.”
A few blocks away from Fisher More, the leader of TCU’s Catholic Community tried increasing its community service after the pope’s call to serve.
TCU Catholic Community priest Fr. Charlie Calabrese said that while the TCU community was already active before Francis was elected, the Jesuit pope’s call to serve caused the community to want to devote more time to the community.
A town hall meeting was held at TCU during Catholic Community mass in February. Students and other community members were encouraged to fill out forms that indicated where they would like to serve, with choices including Catholic Charities, Boys and Girls Club, the Presbyterian Night Shelter and Habitat for Humanity.
I just hope that all of this would be more of a catalyst for us to move more from interest to action,” Calabrese said.
Fort Worth bishop Michael Olson said that the explanation for the perceived media circus surrounding Francis and his idea to serve the poor could have to do with America’s tendency to attach an ideology to everything.
“We look for things that reinforce our own ideology,” Olson said. “The challenge in the United States as Catholics is to turn our faith into an ideology, and sometimes we think Rome is so far away that we always think [the pope] agrees with us.”
Olson said that this way of thinking isn’t unique to Francis. Some conservatives used Benedict XVI’s teachings as a way to reinforce their own beliefs just as some liberals currently use Francis’s teachings to justify their beliefs.
“They say, ‘Oh, this is what he’s saying,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no he’s not,’” Olson said.
Some Catholics in the 109 said that Pope Francis caused them to think more about what it means to be a leader in the Church.
Jonathan Rodriguez, a senior religion major at TCU and a lifelong Catholic, said that Francis has “caused people to look at the church as being an institution that claims to serve and is willing to act on that claim.”
While there is no way to determine yet if there have been increases in tithes or giving since Francis’s papacy, or even if Francis is the reason for any sort of increase, it is apparent that in the 109, churches have always had a mind for the community. In the future, churches in the 109 may implement new community service programs, but Shanahan said he doesn’t know what that would look like.
“What I’d like to see us do is more outreach to homeless people, helping them more than just giving them a blanket or dinner—comforting them, giving them some sense of hope,” Shanahan said. “We have to be a little bit more attuned to the people who are in front of us.”