Catholics call it the 'Pope Francis effect'

'The new pope has made being Catholic cool'

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In an intimate ceremony at SS. Simon and Jude Church in Scott on a recent weekday afternoon, Christopher Fox bowed his head as the Rev. Jay Donahue dipped a seashell into a font of holy water and poured it on him three times, baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mr. Fox then donned a floor-length alb, or white robe, a symbol of his baptism, and was confirmed into the Roman Catholic Church.

His confirmation name: Francis.

It was mainly a tribute to his late father's name, but it was also a salute to the new pope, who has fired the imagination of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike with a bracing series of humble actions, blunt criticisms of church bureaucrats and conciliatory gestures to the marginalized.

Mr. Fox said he was already in the process of joining the church when Francis became pope, but "with the pope coming along, it just added that spark to it all."

It's been called the "Pope Francis effect."

Priests locally and internationally say they're seeing a bump in interest in the church through the pope.

But while there are anecdotes of people joining or returning to the church under the influence of Francis, there's no proof yet that such anecdotes add up to a broad trend.

Pope Francis' name and @pontifex Twitter handle have become some of the most searched terms on the Internet. The pontiff has been named Time magazine's Person of the Year and he enjoys high popularity in polls -- rated favorably by four in five U.S. Catholics and more than half the American general public, according to the Pew Research Center. Italian priests tell researchers they see a rise in Mass attendance,

But since Francis became pope, there is no measurable increase in Americans either identifying themselves as Catholic (around 22 percent) or in reporting they're attending Mass more frequently (with about 40 percent continuing to say they attend weekly), according to Pew.

Georgetown University-based researchers into Catholic trends have come up with similarly stable numbers. But there's a big caveat, said Mark Gray, a research associate and director of Catholic polling at Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Typically, he said, a survey would have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, meaning that any changes that are less than that cannot be considered significant. Given the large America Catholic population -- the nation's largest denomination -- "you'd need to see a shift of more than 1.7 million adults either way to discern any minor change," he said. In other words, the Francis effect would have to be massive even to move the needle a little bit.

But by 2014, when Catholic dioceses start reporting data on their sacraments, they'll know more precisely what's been happening in 2013, Mr. Gray said.

In the meantime, there are the anecdotes.

"His theology is really simple: Love your neighbor as yourself," said Catholic Deacon Cliff Homer, chief operating officer for Catholic Charities in Pittsburgh. Stories of the pope embracing a severely deformed man, or sending money to an elderly woman who was robbed on a bus while on the way to see her hospitalized husband, give preachers "great opportunities" for sermon illustrations that parishioners can relate to, Mr. Homer said.

Francis has declared himself a "son of the church," loyal to its teachings, but he has also called on the church not to be "obsessed" with culture-war issues such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage. And he has made sweeping condemnations of clerical privilege, calling for "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep."

Getting to the altar

For Mr. Fox and his wife Cynthia, Pope Francis helped seal long journeys to the altar, in more than one sense.

Mr. Fox grew up in England in a Protestant church that was so strict, "our whole family dropped out and I've been wandering around aimlessly without religion for nearly 35 years."

It wasn't until he met Cynthia -- herself a cradle Catholic who had been alienated from the church but was on the road back to it -- that he found his spiritual home.

They began attending regularly and were married legally, but they wanted to have a Catholic church wedding. That took some doing. Both had been married previously. She had an earlier marriage annulled, but they waited a long time for Mr. Fox to receive what's known as the "Petrine privilege" -- papal permission to dissolve the marriage of a non-baptized person. His long-languishing petition was quickly approved after Francis assumed the papacy. The couple was married on Dec. 12, three days after Mr. Fox's baptism and confirmation.

Mr. Fox believes the pontiff's repeated calls for more pastoral priests has goaded Vatican bureaucrats into swifter action.

"Whether this had been part of the process or not, the way the pope has just opened up the Catholic world to the world -- I think he's been an incredible man," Mr. Fox said.

Cynthia Fox is also impressed.

"I always knew I'd be back" in the church, she said. But "the new pope has made being Catholic cool. He's nothing but cool."

Francis' "leadership by example not by words is a refreshing change," Father Donahue said.

Father Donahue said that during Pittsburgh's recent Light Up Night, he and others from the diocese stood at Point State Park with a life-sized cutout of Pope Francis and offered people a chance to have their picture taken with it. Not only did people enthusiastically respond, but many young people posed giving high-fives to the pope's upraised hand.

And he said many people came to his parish on Dec. 11 when churches throughout the diocese were encouraging people to come to confession, even if they had been away for years, under the slogan, "The Light is Still on for You."

"We had people who had not been in church for over 30 years," he said, with four hours of steady confessions heard by three priests. "The best part was just creating a warm and welcoming place for people to encounter Christ," he said.

Bishop David Zubik said he was hearing confessions for hours himself at the cathedral that night, and he's heard similar anecdotes of the Francis effect in recent months.

"People who may have felt for one reason or another disenfranchised, universally are saying they see a great deal of hope," Bishop Zubik said.

"That's exactly what he's trying to fire up in people's hearts, that sense of hope," the bishop said. He added that many parishes have been increasing their collections of food for the needy in recent years -- showing they are already in sync with the pontiff's call for a church "for the poor."

Justin Petrovich, a senior at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, experienced Francis' impact firsthand while attending World Youth Day in Brazil, an international Catholic festival that drew about 3 million people. Mr. Petrovich had planned to attend anyway -- after working for several days with local Catholics at a mission for the poor -- but he said the new pope electrified the crowd.

"I never got to see him close-up, but it was awesome just being in his presence," Mr. Petrovich said.

He said the experience confirmed his belief in making an impact. "You always hear the phrase, making the church alive, and I really think he's done that; he shows that the church can be alive."

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416, Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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