Can Francis Change the Church?

Buy it now

Front Cover Can Francis Change the Church?

Can Francis Change the Church?

How American Catholics Are Responding to His Leadership

Jesuit Thomas Sweetser has worked for more than 35 years with Catholic faith communities on evaluation and renewal. In 2011 he set out to interview a broad range of American Catholics, both practicing and non-practicing, about their relationship with the Church. 

A few years into the new papacy, Fr. Sweetser asked the same people again. Had anything changed with Pope Francis? The answers are enlightening for the church's future. Based on before/after interviews, this helpful resource is for everyone concerned about the Church. The value of this book lies in the direct conversations with people from very different walks of life between 20 and 80 years old. They include faithful Catholics as well as people who have left the church. They touch on hot button questions such as hierarchy, women in the church, and sexual abuse, and offer insights into the nature of a deep desire for authentic spirituality. Together these conversations offer a picture of the current state of the Catholic Church as experienced by its members.

Reviews and endorsements

"While Sweetser doesn’t solve this and other problems, his short, lively book is an ideal starting point for a thoughtful program of parish renewal. Many churchgoers will recognize their own questions and reservations, and symptoms evident in their own parishes. Even those working in places and with people not represented in Sweetser’s book will find much to consider. It makes this much clear: real solutions to the challenges facing the church will not come from “above,” but will have to emerge from the types of conversations that Sweetser had with parishioners. Perhaps the question is not whether Francis can change the church, but if we can. "

-Commonweal Magazine January 8, 2020


“Tom Sweetser’s research has brought the voice of the people into a much needed conversation. More than anything, the People of God connect to the longing of Pope Francis to take seriously what Jesus took seriously: inclusion, non-violence, unconditional, loving kindness and acceptance. This invaluable book reminds us that we all want the same things.”
—Gregory Boyle, SJ, founding director, Homeboy Industries

“The ‘before and after Francis’ method of interviewing has opened the door to a much more creative treatment of the topic: it reveals not only what people think but also how a leader might influence that thinking and why. Though the responses of this very readable study come from only a sampling of interviewees, they provide the kind of insight that those working in and for local parishes cannot afford to ignore.”
—Dianne Bergant, CSA

"Thanks to experience both deep and long, Tom Sweetser, SJ, knows what works (and what doesn't) in parish life. He brings this wisdom to his new book about how Pope Francis is changing the Catholic Church by uncovering the attitudes and feelings of two groups: those who struggle but have remained Catholics, and those who have left the Church. This is a surprising, insightful and moving book for reflection, prayer and discussion.”
—James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“What a wonderful combination of heartfelt reflection, significant data and assessment of timely and relevant issues pertaining to the Catholic Church. The author presents a wealth of practical, pastoral suggestions for the renewal and growth of the parish and larger Church. May we all follow the example of Pope Francis by making a difference through the faith, work, and example in our lives!”
—Kate DeVries, Pastoral Associate & Young Adult Minister, Archdiocese of Chicago

“Fr. Tom Sweetser has given us a thoughtful and accessible book on what ordinary Catholics think about their Church. With decades of experience in parish research and renewal he has listened carefully to dozens of people who have distanced themselves from church life and also who remain. The result is a revelatory presentation and analysis of the thoughts and questions of a cross-section of American Catholics both “before and after” the election of Pope Francis.”
—Brett C. Hoover, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pastoral and Practical Theology, Loyola Marymount University, author of The Shared Parish: Latinos, Anglos, and the Future of US Catholicism

“For over forty years, Tom Sweetser, SJ has been in the trenches of Catholic parish life. Here, from a host of witnesses and with hard-won wisdom, he honestly portrays the choking weeds and hopeful seeds for our Catholic faith, with the jury still out on whether Francis can ‘save the Church.’ This is a confrontational and rich resource for the nones, the dones, and those of us still hopeful.”
—Thomas Groome, Prof. Theology & Religious Education, Director of Ph.D. in Theology and Education, Boston College


LITTLE CHUTE — “You are there for others” is the way author Jesuit Fr. Thomas Sweetser said Pope Francis would define ministry.

“Francis keeps things simple,” Fr. Sweetser said during a presentation about his newly-released book, “Can Francis Change the Church? How American Catholics Are Responding to His Leadership,” Oct. 7 at the Little Chute Public Library. His visit was part of the annual Fox Cities Book Festival.

Pope Francis talks about going out to the streets and encountering people, said Fr. Sweetser. “The most important icon in our churches is the exit sign. It tells us to go out there,” he said, adding that faith is for others and “we need to let them in on it. The best part is we don’t have to do it alone.”

The priest-author is a member of the USA Midwest Province of Jesuits, which he entered in 1957. He currently lives in Milwaukee and founded the Parish Evaluation Project in 1973, where he continues to work as a facilitator and consultant to parishes across the country. His work with the project helps pastors, staff and lay leaders welcome people into inclusive communities, create meaningful worship experiences, foster occasions for spiritual growth, and provide opportunities for outreach and service ministries.

His book about Pope Francis did not start out as a book about this pope or his impact on the church and ministry. Rather, he set out to discover more about unhappy Catholics. Working with parishes for 46 years, he said, he saw how people who were once very active in their church had drifted away, and he wondered why.

“Some were still in the church, but not active; some only went to Mass occasionally. Others went to other denominations,” he said. In 2010, he decided to survey Catholics who either left the church or had reduced their participation.

He surveyed 55 people who were either baptized Catholic as infants or entered the church at some point during their lives. Of these, 31 were still Catholic but not active, and the others had left the church. He conducted his interviews in 2011 and 2012.

“The book was ready to go in 2013, and then things started happening,” he said.

After the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis, a Jesuit with a heart for the poor, Fr. Sweetser said he knew he had to rework his manuscript. He conducted another round of interviews in 2017 to see how those he surveyed earlier felt Pope Francis had impacted them.

“With Pope Benedict XVI,” he said, “people were in the throes of anger. There was a lot of questioning and turmoil. That is why many of them left. People felt alienated from the institution (of the church) and felt the lines around what is Catholic were finely drawn. They talked about a lack of direct action, sexism and white privilege.”

When asked why they stayed in the Catholic Church despite their dissatisfaction, people said the liturgy outweighs the hierarchy and God is bigger than the hierarchy.

“Then something happened,” he said, adding that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis ushered in a new era. “They saw someone more interested in inclusivity, someone seeking solidarity with the poor of the world,” he said about the interviewees.

“One person said, ‘It is easier to say yes, I am Catholic’ and be proud of it.” Another called Francis “a breath of fresh air” who “goes back to the way Jesus did things,” he said.

“It was a new direction in the church – one with a focus on the poor and needy, caring for Mother Earth, seeking a new transparency and being more ecumenical,” Fr. Sweetser said. “And, he recognized the messiness of life, such as divorce, and was able to bring people back to the sacraments.”

The pope’s strength is influencing people’s personal lives, according to Fr. Sweetser, and all of this is done with a sense of humor.

Responding to the title of his book, “Can Francis Change the Church?” Fr. Sweetser said, “If we are the church, then his example is changing people’s lives and shifting priorities. He is renewing the church – and that is us. People may not be coming back yet, but they are listening. They feel he has impacted them.

“Francis has an impressive care for and attention to the individual rather than to church rulers,” added Fr. Sweetser. “He says, ‘Go out to the street, smell like sheep.’ Finally, he says we need to treat everyone like they are a child of God. … He is begging us to join him and we are blessed to have him as our pope. He is calling us to holiness.”

- Jean Peerenboom -The Compass

Paperback /

Religion, Theology