A new survey measure Francis explosive popularity but will he change lives?

A new survey measure Francis explosive popularity but will he change lives? Pope Francis passes news photographers as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday (Jan. 15). Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

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Global poster priest and magazine cover star Pope Francis has experienced a spectacular year in the popular media.

Whether he enjoyed it, is another matter. He shrugged off all the adulation in an interview with an Italian daily earlier this week. In the same interview he stirred controversy on his views of civil marriage and enraged victims of clergy sex abuse by praising the church’s record in confronting abuse — a record some dispute.

But when Pew Research examined the first year of his pontificate, in a survey conducted last month, the response from most Americans and seven in 10 Catholics boiled down to a qualified “Wow!”

A team Pew editors, writers and researchers also called people to express their views in their own words: They cite his image as a man with an open mind, open heart and open arms.

  • Francis is “more open than all the other popes,” said William Glover, 51, a probation officer in Illinois who attends Mass weekly.
  • “He is the poor man’s pope. He does his own thing. He’s a more normal, down-to-earth person, and he seems connected with the people. There’s no flamboyance,” said Naomi Magel, 67, a school nurse in Elgin, Texas who attends Mass twice a week.
  • “It just feels like the church is now focusing on what I think is important and less on political issues,” said Vicky Rybnick, 21. The Connecticut college student cares about reducing poverty, helping the homeless and social justice issues rather than “fighting against gay married and abortion and contraception.”

Still, some were disappointed.

Lydia Wiley, 56, a Pennsylvania attorney who calls herself a “cultural Catholic,” told Pew Research, Francis should move the sex abuse scandal higher on his priority list. Last year, addressing abuse was cited as a top priority for the new pope among 70 percent of U.S. Catholics but in 2014 only 54 percent gave Francis high marks for addressing it.

A Pew Research Center Journalism Project team analyzed the media coverage of Francis first year and determined he has brought “renewed visibility to the papacy.”

Certainly, he’s brought more favorable visibility. On Twitter, comments expressing a point of view about  Francis were five times more positive than negative. Benedict’s last year, by contrast, featured 70 percent negative tweets to twice as many negative tweets as positive when people expressed their point of view.

Overall digital media mentions put him in a very eclectic group of the most talked about world leaders. Assessed between March 2013, when he was elected, and January 31, Francis ranked fourth, behind only President Obama, Nelson Mandela, who died in December, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Still, Benedict’s first year can’t be directly compared: The digital media world exploded between Benedict’s election in 2005 and his resignation in February, 2013. Francis also started with a leg up. He inherited millions of followers from the Twitter account @pontifex established by Benedict.

Ultimately, the Pew findings showed that the Francis effect is a subtle, hard-to-measure factor – excitement.

Will that excitement translate into changed lives? Are people really revved up to serve the poor in the name of their Christian faith, Pope Francis’ clear top priority?

“That’s the big question: What will be the long term affect of his appeal?” says Tom Roberts, editor at large of the “National Catholic Reporter.”

“He is inviting people to a difficult mission – to be the church of the poor. He is asking us to take a very difficult walk. He is asking us to go to the margins to reach the dispossessed. It’s one thing to blast the materialistic culture. It’s another to model going to the edge.”

Are you a Catholic who is motivated to go to the edge behind Francis?

Do you think changing the conversation will lead to changes in the Catholic Church?

Remember, at Faith & Reason all views, respectfully presented, are welcome.

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