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Salter Discusses Pope of the People

A recent article about Pope Francis in Canandaigua’s Daily Messenger quoted Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, P’15. The article discusses the Pope’s connection to the people, a trait not normally seen in the head of the Catholic faith.

“He is very much a pope of the people,” Salter said. The article also features similar sentiments from local religious leaders and churchgoers in the Canandaigua area. Though only a little over a year into his papacy, Pope Francis has been praised for his down-to-earth nature and empathy for the poor, as well as for the hope and inspiration he provides.

Salter joined the Colleges in 1998. He earned his B.A. in political science from Hobart College and received his M.A. in religion as well as his Ph.D. in religion and the human sciences from the University of Chicago. His dissertation used sociological and anthropological methods to compare how Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and Rastafarian groups formed recently in Dominica, a small island in the West Indies. He is especially interested in New World Christianities, Christian-Syncretic religious movements, and how religious groups in general form. He was the chair of the American Academy of Religion seminar on Rastafari in Global Context. His current work uses the idea and methods of practical theology to examine American civil religion. His interests were shaped particularly by his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West Indies, from 1986 to 1988.

The full article from the Daily Messenger follows.

Daily Messenger
Pope of the people

Julie Sherwood • April 8, 2014

Pope Francis has a Facebook page. He has 3.85 million followers on Twitter. When he discontinued his newspaper subscription, he made the call himself to cancel.

Tidbits of trivia, to be sure, but tidbits that shed light on the connection Pope Francis has with ordinary people.

“He is very much a pope of the people,” said Richard Salter, associate professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva and department chairman. Pope Francis shares in a lot of the same things people share in, he said, from being a soccer fan and having a favorite team to making that newspaper call himself.

“He seriously and legitimately likes other human beings,” Salter added.

March 13 marked the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as head of the Catholic Church. The Argentinian is the first Jesuit and the first from the American continents to be elected pope. According to the Pew Research Center, more than eight in 10 U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff.

“I feel his witness has inspired people to go out and spread the joy of the gospel,” said Father Peter Mottola, parochial vicar of St. Benedict’s Parish in Canandaigua.

Priests and others in Roman Catholic leadership roles locally say they have not seen evidence in numbers – such as in church attendance or participation in church-related activities – of the pontiff’s popularity having a definite effect. But they say it is too soon to tell.

“It is still young in his papacy,” said the Rev. Leo Reinhardt, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish. The parish has worship sites in Naples, Penn Yan, Prattsburgh and Stanley. As Pope Francis appoints new bishops and make other decisions as time goes on, it will be easier to gauge the pope’s influence, Reinhardt said.

“Overall, people are impressed that he lives simply,” said Reinhardt. “And that attracts people to him.”

Dawn Burdick, pastoral associate at St. Benedict Parish who works with church youth, said kids and teens are taking notice of Pope Francis, which she sees as positive. Pope Francis is humble and at the same time in tune with social media, which helps form a strong connection, said Burdick – who herself follows the pontiff on Twitter and mentioned that he recently took a “selfie” – a photo of himself that he shared on social media.

She added that while society often frowns upon being open about religion, Pope Francis demonstrates the joy in being confident and open about one’s faith.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Dec. 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of five children born to an Italian railway worker and his wife. According to an online publication, The Telegraph, which refers to Pope Francis as “this most humble of Popes,” he had a remarkably normal life growing up and as a young adult.

“He’s had a girlfriend, he loves the tango, and at one point he worked as a bouncer,” according to The Telegraph’s “Pope Francis: 20 things you didn’t know” (

The Rev. Dan Tormey, senior priest at St. Benedict’s Parish, said Pope Francis conveys qualities that endear him to people. He has instructed priests and bishops to have what the Pope calls “smell of the sheep,” said Tormey – meaning that those in leadership roles in the church need to become close to the people, to listen to them and understand.

Two parishioners attending a noon Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Canandaigua last week said they felt a connection with Pope Francis.

“He is encompassing of everyone,” said Joan Busch of Canandaigua.

Honeoye resident Jim Parshall said he likes the pope’s honesty and humility and his “love of the poor.”

Pope Francis “has inspired people to take up the collective responsibility of reaching out to those in need,” said Ellen Wayne, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes. He has renewed the church’s emphasis on the needs of the poor and leads by example, she said.

On March 27, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis met face-to-face for the first time. Obama said he is a “great admirer” of Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican and said he considers them of kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. While the Obama administration and the church remain deeply split on such issues as abortion and contraception, Obama stressed the two leaders’ common ground on fighting inequality and poverty.

Pope Francis “is not one to sit behind a glass wall making statements and simply challenging others,” said Wayne.

Salter, at Hobart and William Smith, said Pope Francis, in his humility and ability to question himself, offers hope and inspiration – not by wagging a condemning finger, but by sending the message that we all make mistakes, and that “this is a religion about getting back up.”