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The Pilgrim
A firsthand observer of the election of Pope Francis shares his insights.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Non-Catholics might say the church has a PR problem, but John Paul Shimek, a 31-year-old Brookfield native and former assistant to two Milwaukee archbishops, identifies secularization – what he calls a kind of “amnesia” about the importance of faith – as the denomination’s greatest challenge in the northern hemisphere. Now a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Shimek dubbed himself a “pilgrim journalist” earlier this year and traveled from the nation’s capital to Rome to write for The Catholic World Report and other outlets amid the election and early days of Pope Francis. For a guy who once begged his parents to plan family road trips that would intersect with papal visits to the U.S., March was a magical month.

What has surprised you the most about reporting at the Vatican?
The third day I was here, I opened my inbox, and I had an email from the English language assistant to the Vatican spokesperson asking me to come and visit him at the Holy See press office. We talked about my background, what I was doing in Rome, and what I hoped to get out of the experience, and he gave me a desk in the press hall itself, which was really quite an honor. I looked around the room, and there were reporters from Ansa and the AP and Reuters and all of these major media outlets. And then there was me, a little guy. This was sort of the hub. All of the information passed through there first.

Just how harrowing were those hours waiting for the announcement and the white smoke?
I remember being in a huddle of young people, and it was raining in the square. I was speaking with young Catholics from India, Africa and Asia, and we were asking ourselves just moments before the announcement, “Do you think we’re going to have a non-European pope?” And somebody from India said, “No, no, it’ll be an Italian,” and someone from Africa said, “No, no, they’re probably going to choose somebody from North America.”

What are people saying about Pope Francis?
A lot of the talk has been about how he’s making efforts to reach out to the people of Rome, and the other piece is that this is a very simple man. There’s a story circulating in Rome that the morning after the pope’s election, he came out of his room into the hallway, where there was a guard, and asked him, “Were you here all night standing guard?” The guy explained that his job is to protect the pope, and so the pope went back into his room, got a chair for the man to sit down on, got him a snack and said, “If there’s anything you need, just let me know.”

Is it possible to be a simple man and a pope?
I guess that’s one of the things that he will show us. So far, he’s turned the Vatican security upside down. The very first Sunday after his election, he celebrated mass at a little church inside the Vatican and then proceeded to walk toward the gates of the Vatican and into the streets of Rome.

Is secularization a challenge faced by Catholics in Milwaukee?
I don’t think so. We have a very rich ecclesiastical life in Milwaukee. A case in point might be our customary Friday fish fry or that we still talk about the religious faith of our candidates or that it’s not uncommon to see cooperation between local government and the church.

Two hundred years from now, will there still be such a thing as the Catholic Church?
The church has been in existence for 2,000 years, and I don’t think she’s going anywhere anytime soon. I think her life is changing. There will probably be a smaller church, but perhaps those within the church will be more energetic, more dynamic and more orthodox.

If you could change one thing about the church, what would it be?
The church needs to engage more deeply on the questions of homosexuality and homosexual marriage. One thing would be to seek an answer to the question, “What is the vocation of the homosexual within the church?” I might also suggest that the church be smarter about how she communicates her message.

Would that mean a change in position?
No, but it might mean understanding that position more profoundly and being able to welcome the other, be non-judgmental and embrace the other in love while at the same time remaining faithful to the church’s position. And that’s a very difficult road to walk.

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