Francis effect?

Poll finds pope has Catholics praying more often

One year into his papacy, Pope Francis remains immensely popular among American Catholics and is seen as a force for positive change in the Church, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

More than 8-in-10 U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of the pontiff, rivaling the number who felt equally positive about Blessed Pope John Paul II in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the study found.

The study, released March 6, also revealed some 71 percent of American Catholics think Pope Francis represents a major change in the direction of the Church. About 56 percent of non-Catholics reported the same.

While Pope Francis’ impact is a cause of celebration, Catholics are pointing out that some media’s depiction of the pontiff could be misleading.

In his Feb. 4 Denver Catholic Register column, Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote that the media is creating what one journalist has called a “fantasy” Francis, one that is far from the truth of who he is and what he believes.

“But I do believe that his appearance underscores the power of building ‘a culture of encounter’ and bringing ‘tenderness’ to our interactions—two principles that he embodies and promotes,” the archbishop wrote.

The media’s reporting on the pope has rivaled top public officials and other religious leaders. Another Pew study revealed the pope received nearly 50,000 media mentions between his election and the end of January. That’s more than U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian President Vladimir Putin and far more than the Dalai Lama.

Global Language Monitor reported that Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet in 2013.

Drawing 'Super Papa'Credit Lauren Cater-CNAPope Francis addressed the “Francis mania” in a recent interview with Corriere Della Sera.

“I don’t like ideological interpretations, a certain mythology of Pope Francis,” he reportedly said. “To paint the pope as if he is a sort of Superman, a sort of star, I find offensive. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully and has friends like everyone else. He is a normal person.”

The Pew study reported it isn’t clear whether the so-called “Francis effect” is creating a discerning change among faithful’s approach to the faith.

There has been no measureable rise in the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic, but about 26 percent of Catholics have become “more excited” about their faith over the past year and 4-in-10 also reported praying more often, according to the study.

The study was based on a national sample of 1,821 adults living in the United States, including a large portion of young adults aged 18-33.

Pope Francis: Year One

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.