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Pope Francis signals remarkable shift in priorities for Catholics (+video)

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Benedict had also suggested the church might need to become smaller and purer to contend with modern secularism and materialism – frequent topics of his sermons and writings. And Catholic bishops in the US have often focused their public statements on condemnations of explosive social issues like homosexuality and abortion.

Francis, by contrast, has brought a renewed and aggressive focus on evangelization, social justice, and parish ministry – each of which are important parts of his religious order, the Society of Jesus, whose members are known as Jesuits. Pope Francis, an Argentine of Italian heritage, is the first Jesuit pope, as well as the first pope from the Americas.

“The interview brims with Pope Francis' fundamental optimism about human beings – and his confidence in our ability, individually and collectively, to discern what is good and what is of God,” says J. Patrick Hornbeck, chair of the department of theology at Fordham University in New York.

“This is in stark contrast to what he views as a legalistic attitude toward people,” Professor Hornbeck continues. “This is fundamentally Jesuit: It reflects what Francis would have learned from his earliest days in the Jesuits – namely, the great confidence that Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, has in God's work through human beings.”

Francis’ change in tone and emphasis has many of the 75 million Catholics in the US applauding after what they see as years of the church's decline.

“Certainly the vast majority of US Catholics will enthusiastically welcome the remarks of Pope Francis,” says Michele Dillon, chair of the sociology department at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. “Catholics have for many decades now made up their own minds about the morality of contraception, gay relationships, marriage [and] divorce, and the moral nuances presented by the difficult challenges posed by abortion.”

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