The Francis Effect

It’s being dubbed the Pope Francis “Effect” – the apparent surge of Catholics returning to regular church attendance that is being logged and monitored among congregations in Italy and even as far as the British Isles. Is it a trend?

Initial indications were anecdotal, as journalists cited clerics in Italy such as Giuseppe Cardinal Betori, Archbishop of Florence, saying, “So many are returning to the sacraments, in some cases after decades.”

The effect may be more than the novelty of having a new pope with an engaging style of communicating. Just last Monday, a survey conducted by head sociologist Massimo Introvigne at Italy’s Center for the Study of New Religions found that 51 percent of 250 priests interviewed report a significant rise in church attendance since the papal election in March. A smaller British study noted similar increases. Extrapolated to a larger population, this would portend hundreds of thousands coming back to the Sunday flock.

Not everyone is cheering. Some have shown misgivings, criticizing what is perceived as a naïve and simplistic desire to return to “a poor, egalitarian church (reminiscent of its) origins in which faith is freed of superstructures.” This according to the influential writer Vittorio Messori who warned in last Sunday’s Corriere della Sera that, historically, charismatic movements which “refused to change into hierarchical structures” were swiftly reduced to irrelevance.

In The New York Times last Sunday, an article by Laurie Goodstein weighed in on the worldwide “affection” Pope Francis has been drawing from broader audiences, including long disaffected Catholics and even atheists. This has not pleased others who worry about perceptions that the pope’s wider approval ratings may come at the expense of doctrinal clarity.

Is it a question of compromise or more a matter of vision? By his own words, Pope Francis has stressed his desire to bring what he calls the “fragrance” of the Gospel message of God’s love and forgiveness closer to those who may not be receiving it through “a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” He uses words like “harmony” and “mercy,” which convey a blessing before a woe, along with positive, proactive affection or “affect” that first attracts into the healing light of God’s holiness, which cannot have its saving “effect” unless, in its radiance, the good can be clearly discerned from the evil.

Pope Francis, it seems, may be seeking much more than just superficial “effects.” To really get things done, a conversion of hearts, not only structures, is needed. While some of his critics may be concerned – and understandably so – about the media taking his words and actions out of context, little that he has done gives any indication that his vision lacks focus or substance.

On the contrary, his message of inclusiveness, while eschewing the denunciatory language of proselytism, is, if anything, more “catholic” in its universal outreach toward those who may have despaired that the Church can still speak to – and be heard in – today’s world.

It is far too early for history to begin evaluating the effect of his stewardship as the successor of Peter. It is quickly becoming clearer that affection for Pope Francis the man may be opening many more ears to hear the message at the very center of the Gospel – and precisely because he is showing by example how it may be lived.