In a CNS article titled, “Archbishop says people returning to confession because of pope,” we read of the anecdotal evidence for some changes in the Italian pastoral landscape marked, in part, by a rise in sacramental confession and an increase in the attendance of visitors at public papal audiences. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, “said during an early May visit to southern Italy and in conversations with priests from northern Italy where he grew up, he repeatedly heard reports that ‘a lot of people have been going to confession and many have said that while they hadn’t gone in a long time, they felt touched by the words of Pope Francis.'”
I’m not entirely sure, from a social-science perspective, how much weight to give such a claim. However, I am positively disposed to the gesture; namely, that Pope Francis’s public presence, well-known simplicity in lifestyle, casual and approachable demeanor, humility in liturgical celebrations, and accessible and heart-felt preaching has garnered a lot of understandable attention that might very well contribute to broader shifts in public opinion about the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and its role in the world today.
While Archbishop Fisichella does not prefer the term “Francis Effect,” I’m less put off by the phrase. When I hear that term, I first think of St. Francis of Assisi and call to mind the world-changing effect he had in his own time that has so rippled through history to reach our own day. I think of how this one man from the Medieval Umbrian town of Assisi could draw so many people to him and his memory that he would, 800-years later, remain the most popular saint (after Mary) in the church. I think of how there is really something to the name that Pope Francis adopted after his election as bishop of Rome and, in large and small ways, lives out in the same spirit.
The CNS article reports the secretary of the council’s surmising about what is happening:
“People want to be present, listen to his voice and see him, touch him, because he makes a connection (with people) that is very moving,” the archbishop said, adding that the pope’s popularity reflects the “importance of the faith, the importance of being Christian, and the importance of the pope at this moment in the history of the church.”
There is a danger, of course, that this is only a superficial interest that people have — something more akin to the pontificate of John Paul II, the so-called “rock-star pope.” Yet, while JPII was a world traveler and charismatic figure, and his energy seemed to arise from his personality rather than actions, Pope Francis’s appeal seems less focused on himself (although this is no doubt a factor here) and more on the striking, at-times iconoclasm that he has unleashed on the peripheral aggrandizing dimensions of the pontifical office. His eschewing of ostentatious formalities and vesture, his casual preaching tone and presence (especially from the ambo and not ex cathedra), his willingness to create a new international advisory committee — these things are not insignificant signals of some change, of some kind of “Francis Effect.”
Granted, it is still far too early to begin forecasting long-term “effects” of Pope Francis. However, it is my hope that these signs — mixed as they are with more ambiguous and complicated negotiations with contentious inherited items like the LCWR investigation — might signal a truly powerful shift in time. I still believe that, for example, the LCWR investigation was wrong-headed, something confirmed by the public-relations melee from within the curia in recent weeks, but I’m not sure I entirely understand Pope Francis’s current relationship to it and, in the meantime, I’m hoping for the best. This also goes for the unfolding political drama in Puerto Rico, where my confrere Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez, OFM, the archbishop of San Juan, has been caught in the middle of some as-of-yet still unclear political battle with one of the Vatican dicasteries and local political nationalistic movements. It remains to be seen how these sorts of matters play out and what leadership role — either directly or through episcopal appointments — Pope Francis plays in them.
Nevertheless, I’m hopeful and continue to sit back and see what happens. If the “Francis Effect” does, in reality, lead to greater participation in the sacraments — not just sacramental confession, which is one of the most misunderstood of the seven — then it is a good effect indeed. If the “Francis Effect” does mean real change in antiquated structures of partisan cronyism in curial offices, then I think it is a good effect indeed. If the “Francis Effect” does draw women and men closer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to live lives in the footprints of the Lord, then it is a good effect indeed.
We will have to wait and see.