High ratings for Pope Francis, but no growth

Written By BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Religion Reporter Posted: 03/13/2014, 12:41pm

DePaul University senior Daniel Junk, 22, follows Pope Francis on Twitter.

Lisa Reiter, director of campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago has posted Francis’ comments and homilies on her Facebook page.

And at Chicago’s St. Benedict the African West, St. Mary of the Angels and Holy Name Cathedral, parishioners have had plenty of praise for the pope, pastors say.

As the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy approaches Thursday, Cardinal Francis George said in an email statement, “His message of joy as the first note of preaching has bolstered the spirits of many Catholics.”

Chicago-area Catholics credit Francis with reinvigorating the church with his pastoral style. His humility, focus on the poor, and non-judgmental approach have been badly needed medicine, they say.

While admiration for Francis is widespread, the positive reviews haven’t pulled more people into the pews or put more cash into collection plates here, parish priests say. And some Catholics contend he needs to do more to address priest sexual abuse of children and give women a greater voice in church leadership.

“He’s raised the morale,” said the Rev. James Halstead, chairman of religious studies at DePaul University. “It’s wonderful to have a leader that inspires confidence and hope and makes you proud once again.”

“I think the main impact is that he comes across as such a welcoming presence, that he emphasizes the mercy of God,” said Susan Ross, theology professor at Loyola University Chicago.

“Before Pope Francis there was a sense you had to sort of get it right, get the liturgy right … your belief right, and that there would be consequences if you didn’t.”

Today when she thinks of the pope, “I don’t suddenly get a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Ross said. “He has such a positive, warm persona that gets communicated to people. People feel like the sun came out.”

Despite his popularity, mass attendance fell 2.5 percent in October 2013 from a year earlier, marking the 11th straight year of decline, according to the latest data from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“The question is, are we slowing those who might be leaving?” Reiter said. “Pope Francis is providing our students with some very compelling reasons to consider what a faithful Catholic life looks like, and that is both participation in … the practice of Catholic worship” and living out the faith in works of service and charity, she stressed.

But a new Pew Research Center survey found no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Roman Catholic or evidence that more Catholics are volunteering in their churches or communities, or attending mass.

“I think it’s going to take some time to turn around our previous trajectory,” said the Rev. Mark Francis, president of Chicago Theological Union. “I hear that there’s much more enthusiasm on the part of young people in terms of what the pope is saying and standing for. He’s a pope that talks about what we are for and not what we are against. I think that that positive note is very helpful.”

The Pew survey found 85 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of the pontiff. Among them are Loyola students Hannah Coley and Justin Hoch, who see the pope as an inspiration.

“As Catholics, we are called to reach out and to love,” said Coley, a 19-year-old philosophy major. She welcomes Francis’ focus on “putting faith into action.”

But among his critics is the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“It’s been a year now,” SNAP’s Barbara Blaine said. “He’s done a lot of other things. He does these kind gestures. He washed the feet of homeless people. He embraces children. He’s talked about the needs of the poor and sharing the wealth more equitably in our world. But when it comes to the safety of children and children being protected from sexual violence by church employees, he hasn’t stepped up. … He has not taken action that will make a difference.”

The pope in December announced the creation of a new commission of experts to advise the church on protecting children from sexual abuse. But it is unclear whether the commission will tackle the issue of what happens to bishops found to have sheltered abusive priests.

Chicago-based Call to Action was among 42 organizations that signed a letter sent to Francis last month, urging him to take immediate steps to appoint more women to church leadership positions and stop the practice of banning people from communion.

The pope has called for a greater role for women in decision-making, but said the door is closed on ordaining women as priests.

Reiter said she hopes the pope will help usher in dialogue regarding women serving as deacons.

“The question is, at what point are [women] actually involved in the decision-making for the broader church?” she said.

The theological union’s Francis said he hopes for a re-evaluation of church rules that prevent many divorced and remarried couples from taking communion.

By and large, Catholic leaders here said they aren’t expecting radical changes.

“In terms of doctrine or church practice, I have been around long enough to know the church moves slowly,” said Pat Lagges, director and chaplain at Calvert House the Catholic Center at the University of Chicago. “I don’t know that anything radical is going to happen. But in 1959 when John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council, I would imagine in 1958, nobody thought anything radical was going to happen either.”

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