ONE YEAR LATER: How Have Catholics Responded to Pope Francis?

ONE YEAR LATER is an afternoon series focusing on the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy. Bondings 2.0 will be running this series all week.  The anniversary of his election is Thursday, March 13th.

Pope Francis’ remarkable impact on the Catholic Church and the world has been described as “the Francis effect” by media reports and academic panels. A year into this papacy, many are wondering what effect Pope Francis has actually had on people and what this “effect” will mean in practical terms for the life of the Church.

Dan Burke of CNN wrote a lengthy piece titled “How to really measure the ‘Francis effect” exploring these very questions in light of the fact the pope’s made no doctrinal reforms, nor has church attendance grown. Yet, Burke contends there are more ways to measure influence than mass attendance and conversions. Focusing in on Boston’s Catholic population, the author highlights personal stories to shed light on Pope Francis’ impact. He writes of Brian Stevens, a gay Catholic man who formerly worked for the US bishops before quitting when opposition to marriage equality became the conference’s focus:

“Stevens stayed active in charity circles and has been watching Pope Francis closely. He says he’s noticed a change of tone towards gays and lesbians.

” ‘He speaks with a new generosity of spirit that’s truly welcoming…There’s no nuance, no couching it in broader terms. It’s just: I’m here to bring people closer to God, not judge them. With Pope Benedict, God bless him, that just didn’t come through.’

“One night recently, St. Rose of Lima Parish in Miami Shores, Florida, asked social justice activists to talk about how Pope Francis has affected their personal and professional lives. Their stories inspired Stevens to join the parish…

” ‘This is a moment of grace for the church,’ Stevens says.”

Elsewhere in his article, Burke profiles St. Cecilia parish in Boston, known for its explicit welcome of LGBT people. Fr. John Unni, the pastor, recalls having to cancel a prayer service during Pride Month at the Archdiocese’s request and acknowledges the greater flexibility parishes have to open their doors to all since Pope Francis was elected.

The Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life adds hard data to Burke’s anecdotal evidence that Pope Francis is, at the least, being well received by American Catholics. 85% of Catholics express favorable views of the pope, with 71% believing he is changing the Church and 68% believe this change is an improvement. Among the general population, Pope Francis polls at 66% favorable

And what of concrete practices? According to Pew, there are no marked increases in mass attendance, volunteering, or receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation since the pope was elected. However, the report shows upticks in levels of religiosity, such as praying and reading the Bible, as well as a growing excitement about Catholicism.

And what of LGBT matters under Pope Francis’ leadership? Pew’s numbers report only half of Catholics endorse marriage equality, slightly lower than recently released data by the Public Religion Research Institute. However, a third believe the Church will recognize equal marriage rights by 2050, include 21% who oppose same-gender marriages.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, when commenting on the Pew results for the National Catholic Reporter, concludes with an essential point about “the Francis effect” and how it might be played out locally:

“The results of this survey remind us that the pope is not the Catholic church, although he plays an essential role. If Tip O’Neil is right that ‘All politics is local,’ then it is also true that ‘All Catholicism is local.’ If people become enthusiastic and return to church because of Pope Francis but find that same old same old, then they will turn around and leave. If rather than hearing the message of Francis, which is the message of the Gospel, they hear from the pulpit rules and condemnations, then they will never return.

“Francis cannot save Catholicism all by himself. Bishops and priests have to get with the program. Francis is modeling what it means to be a good bishop, a good priest, a good Christian, but if we don’t follow him, his efforts will fail.”

Gerard O’Connell, a former Vatican correspondent also writing in the National Catholic Reporter, argues that this pope was elected precisely to reform the Church and clarifies what reform means:

“His reform is first and foremost a spiritual one. He aims at a conversion of hearts and minds, a change of attitudes, on the part of all who work in the Vatican and in positions of responsibility in the church. At morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hostel where he lives, Francis delivers challenging, Scripture-based homilies that are the soul of his spiritual-cultural revolution.

“The Jesuit pope is not simply advocating reform by words, he is propelling it forward by the striking example of his own humble, prayerful lifestyle, his preferential option for the poor, his vision of an inclusive church ‘that is poor and for the poor,’ his promotion of ‘a culture of encounter’ and ‘rejection of a culture of confrontation,’ and his effort to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.”

Whether or not the infectious spirit of Pope Francis will be caught by bishops and priests is an open question, though there is evidence it has done so for LGBT issues, as evidenced by a priest in Trinidad and even Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Transforming high papal poll numbers into renewed parish life seems to hinge on that question of whether the Church’s ‘middle management’ can make Pope Francis’ welcome a reality, if they can refocus the Church’s priorities on the poor into local situations.

Through this week, “One Year Later”has explored just how Catholics in the pews have responded and what long-term impact Pope Francis might have as he embarks on a second year. You can view the full series by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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