The Vatican introduced a new pope in March, one who promises to be a transformative figure in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope, first from the Americas and first from the Southern Hemisphere.

At a time when the church, here in Maine and across the country, is still reeling from scandals and declining parishes, his arrival comes not a moment too soon. As a reformer, he is already humanizing the role of pope, pushing against an entrenched bureaucracy in Rome and giving new hope to millions of Catholics around the world.

One of his goals is to move the church away from what he calls its “obsession” with other people’s sex lives, even while it has had a blindness toward its own. When asked recently about his views on homosexuality, he said simply, “Who am I to judge?” Asked about abortion, he said that while the church’s beliefs are clear, “we have to find a new balance.”

The Catholic Church in America is in distress, selling off property to settle lawsuits and consolidating parishes. Far fewer young men and women are signing up as priests and nuns, and too many parishes, outside of Hispanic communities, are aging toward an inevitable closing.

Many believe that the decline of the church is a result of the sexual abuse scandals, but the process has been festering within the church since the 1950s, when it began to separate from its flock with a rigid opposition to birth control. Catholics disagreed in droves, and the “infallibility” at the core of the church was weakened. Later, the church took equally unbending stands against abortion and gay rights, further alienating younger Catholics in particular.

Those stances pushed the church into increasingly uneasy alliances with far-right and fundamentalist forces, who, incidentally, were also working to dismantle many of the anti-poverty programs that the church supports. Over time, the public — both Catholic and non-Catholic — has moved toward increasing tolerance on issues like gay rights, leading to even more separations from the church.

This last decade has been enormously painful to Catholics, who love their church and respect all the good it has done here and around the world. They have been embarrassed by the church’s scandals, saddened by its losses and stung by the vitriolic anti-Catholic prejudice that too often masquerades as jokes these days, even among otherwise enlightened people.

I cannot say any of this without feeling a deep sadness. The church I attended as a boy was torn down a few weeks ago to make way for senior housing. I still have a photo of myself, at 14, standing on the steps of Waterville’s St. Francis de Sales church, wearing a confirmation robe. Within just a few years, I would join a trickle of young Catholics in an exodus from the church of my parents and my community.

The last few times I’ve been in a Catholic church, I was simply overcome with a sense of loss. Such grand structures, built often by the hands of parishioners as the centerpiece of their community, now too often reduced to near-empty places, echoing the past.

It would be hard for people who did not grow up in a Catholic community to understand what a difficult time this is for both current and former Catholics. Especially for those who grew up in tight-knit, ethnic neighborhoods, the church was the center of community. It was the government, the teacher, the gathering place and the boundary.

It was also a place that was deeply personal, where you confessed your sins. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I said ‘tabernacle’ twice, threw a rock at Donnie and had impure thoughts about the girl down the street.”

The church is a complex place, with many faces. As with all human institutions, it contains some of the worst of human instincts, including power, corruption and greed. But it also contains some of the most loving, gentle and caring people I’ve ever met — saints and angels who devoted themselves to a lifetime of service to the poor, in hospitals, in schools and among the afflicted, the discouraged and the powerless.

Those two competing human instincts, to control and to embrace difference, have produced a never-ending argument within every Christian institution since Jesus walked in Galilee. One side wishes to enforce conformity. The other, including Jesuits like Francis, want to focus on advancing the revolutionary creed that Jesus offered to the world: Love. Forgiveness. Kindness. Peace.

We can only hope, for the church’s sake and for all of us, that he succeeds.

Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at:

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