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Pope’s first year hasn’t changed U.S. Catholics’ measurable behavior - but his impact is felt

In the year since he was elected, Pope Francis has become the most talked-about person on the Web. Millions are riveted by his words, and, to many, his very name infers humanity and compassion in a world rife with divisions.

Still, he appears not to have had much impact on the number of Americans attending Mass, converting to Catholicism, giving to Catholic charities and other conventional measures, according to interviews with a wide range of U.S. church leaders, experts and other Catholics as well as early data released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

It’s not clear “there has been a so-called ’Francis effect,’ a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith,” according to the report.

And yet, his effect is undeniably everywhere.

Forty percent of U.S. Catholics polled by Pew say they’ve been praying more often in the past year, 21 percent say they’re reading the Bible “and other religious materials” more often and 26 percent say they’ve become “more excited” about their faith. Majorities say they haven’t changed their behaviors.

Anecdotally, officials at Catholic schools say students - and teachers - are showing a greater interest in discussing the pope. Catholic fundraisers are urging donors to “take advantage” of the Francis momentum. Church reformers seeking such changes as women’s ordination are rewriting their materials to remove words such as “hypocrisy” and “outrage” that won’t work in an era of pope love. Priests say they are watching the cost of where they eat and drive, following the example of their humble leader.

It’s still early in the Francis era, however, and experts say the standing of the Catholic Church in the United States will depend partly on whether Francis signals changes in areas where there is broad disagreement between American Catholics and the church hierarchy. That includes the ban on using artificial contraception and giving Communion to divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church. Francis has called for a rare “Synod on the Family” this fall to discuss these and related issues.

Equally important will be how grass-roots pastors and parishioners interpret the pope’s words and gestures.

“The level of openness is totally different. What’s not clear is, when they go to church finally, do they find Francis, or do they find one of the ’little monsters’?” said John Carr, a policy adviser to the U.S. bishops, using a term Francis coined last year to describe seminarians trained to overly focus on rules and obeying the hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Francis’ remarks and deeds are encouraging some Catholics and former Catholics to become more engaged with the Church.

Ryan Argentieri of Arlington County, Va. is among them.

The 34-year-old was raised attending Catholic schools and felt deeply fueled by Mass, but once she went off to college, she came to reject the idea of Catholicism’s claim on the truth. She later studied Buddhism before she felt her childhood faith call her in 2011 when the Dalai Lama appeared with Washington Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl during an intensive Tibetan Buddhist ritual.

It was this quasi-approval of the Dalai Lama - someone whose universalism she deeply respected - that allowed her to start re-exploring Mass here and there. But Pope Francis’s election “opened the floodgates,” she said. His taking of the name and priorities of Francis and his openness - “that was when I came full circle.”

After Francis’ election, Argentieri joined Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. and now goes to Mass most weeks. “If it hadn’t been for Pope Francis, I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” she said. “He is someone who has articulated something I can stand for.”

For progressive advocates such as Kate Conmy, Pope Francis has upended the landscape. Conmy, assistant director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said his broad tone has renewed interest from Catholics who had given up on such changes as women being ordained but also tamped down the intensity of liberals who suddenly want a less-demanding posture toward the Vatican.

“As soon as Pope Francis was elected, we started receiving pushback from members, claiming our tone was too harsh. Many members wrote and told us to ’give him time,’ ” Conmy said.

Advocates from her group and other progressive ones are now writing letters to Rome instead of sending petitions. Literature calls for such things as “a truly collaborative relationship with women” and “a more Pope Francis-like pastoral approach” instead of demanding “accountability,” she said.

It’s exciting, she said, to see Catholics so encouraged about liberalizing reforms; indeed, the Pew report says that since a year ago, there have been jumps in Catholics’ expectation that women and married men will be priests in the near future. But she also feels discouraged to see less fervent support for full equality for women, gay men and lesbians.

“It’s a feeling like you’re the only sober person at the party. Like - ’I hope I still get a piece of the cake,’ ” she said. “Atmospherics don’t change real consequences.”

The explosion in the discussion about Francis’ words and actions appears to be everywhere in American Catholicism.

Last year, Carr launched a center at Georgetown about Catholics and public life, and he remembers being told that he’d be lucky to get 200 people at his first event, in the fall, about Francis. He got 700. Washington’s Catholic Charities, the region’s largest private social-service organization, got 100 volunteers on a random recent sunny weekend morning to pack breakfast bags for the homeless - an unusually high turnout.

“Let’s face it: Lots of Catholics can feel crushed by the Church, by something their priest did or the sex-abuse crisis. I think the pope saying, ’Who am I to judge?’ - that one comment was the most important comment said in the past year by anyone,” said Monsignor John Enzler, a prominent Washington-area priest who now runs Catholic Charities, which serves Catholics and non-Catholics.

Daniel McMahon, the principal of DeMatha, a prestigious Catholic high school in Hyattsville, Md., said it’s unlikely that most staff - never mind students - “except the most academic and devout” had read Pope Benedict XVI’s words. But probably 75 percent of DeMatha teachers had read Pope Francis’ conversational interview last year with America magazine, he said.

“Francis has caused people to think and listen in different ways,” he said.

Catholics will feel Francis’ impact most by the bishops he picks, said the Rev. Tom Gaunt, executive director of the Catholic research firm Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Many church watchers noted recently that the pope decided not to reappoint Cardinal Raymond Burke - a conservative culture warrior - to the Vatican’s bishop-picking committee and chose just one American: Wuerl, a moderate cardinal.

Last week, Francis made news when he told the committee that bishops should guard Church teaching “not to measure how far the world lives from the truth it contains, but to fascinate the world . . . to enchant . . . to seduce it with the free gift of the Gospel.”

Although people may wildly share such quotes on Twitter, it’s hard to tell how many lapsed Catholics Francis can bring back to the fold. That internal journey is unique for each one.

Facundo Silva is a case study. Growing up in the same Buenos Aires neighborhood as Pope Francis, the 39-year-old remembers losing interest in Catholicism as a teen. He moved to the United States in his early 20s and slowly became an atheist.

Intrigued immediately last spring by the election of a fellow Argentinian, the Fairfax County, Va. firefighter downloaded to his iPad a book of interviews Francis had done with two journalists before becoming pope. He was strongly moved to learn that Francis had lived in Silva’s own neighborhood and gone to his same church and that they both loved soccer. But most of all was the tone of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

“I felt as if it were me having those conversations,” he said.

He also learned in that book that as a divorced person who remarried outside the Catholic Church, he was not eligible for Holy Communion without getting an annulment. Silva’s girlfriend and her children are active in a parish in Northwest Washington, and his ex-wife recently brought their two children into the church as well. He wants to be a part and became open to trying.

Since January, he has been meeting one on one with the Rev. David Werning at Our Lady of Victory in Washington. Silva doesn’t want to attend Mass when he can’t take Communion.

“Sometimes I think . . . Am I going to go back to being Catholic so I can sit in the back seat?” But he enjoys meeting with Werning and feeling the connection to his history. “Honestly, for me it’s going to be a process until I get to that point where I have the faith. . . . I want to have faith,” he said. “And Pope Francis, he has had such a big influence. He is what started it for me, this change.”

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