Is 'rock star' Pope Francis putting people in the pews?

Almost a year since his installation, the pope's popularity doesn't seem to have improved attendance in American Catholic churches.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday.

Almost one year after taking up the reins of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is unquestionably a media sensation.

He has appeared on numerous magazine covers – including the Monitor's own, for a story I wrote in October. He cemented his “rock star” status with his appearance on the front of February's Rolling Stone magazine. He can even add "centerfold" to his list of accomplishments, thanks to a new glossy magazine entitled "Il Mio Papa," or "My Pope," released in Italy yesterday, Ash Wednesday, and featuring photos, articles, and a pull-out poster dedicated to the pontiff.

But whatever the media might think of him, there's a more important issue for the church: Is the pope drawing believers back into the flock?

A new poll released today says the answer – at least in the US – is "not really."

According to the Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, while the pope's popularity ratings are sky high, it has not translated to any difference in church attendance in the past year among American Catholics.

John Allen Jr., a longtime Vatican observer for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), told me in October, that the new pope, in his efforts to downplay the ideological divides on culture war issues and live a more humble life, was appealing to the Catholic “middle” – that is, members of the laity who think of themselves as "Catholic" but felt alienated from the church over the church's position on gays, contraception, or the like.

"He wants to project a more merciful and compassionate face of the church," says Mr. Allen. "That is the agenda of the Catholic middle."

But whether that means a Catholic middle will start filling the pews is another question. As Allen explained to me then: “John Paul II electrified people across the globe in 1978 too. He was this John Wayne figure, a man’s man with this swagger, taking control of the world’s oldest [institution]. He was a media rock star in his time too. While that had a lot of impact, revitalizing the church and giving it new energy, it by itself did not stem the long-term decline of Catholicism in the world.”

The Pew figures show that Pope Francis, despite the expectations he has unleashed, might offer a similar legacy, although Thomas Reese, an NCR senior analyst, has a more positive take. “This could be interpreted as showing that Francis has had no impact,” he writes in an NCR blog today. “On the other hand, since church attendance has been declining since the 1950s, the fact that it did not go down could be considered a victory.” 

The pope himself opened up this week about the “mythology” recently built around him. He said he didn't like it, in an interview published in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper Wednesday. 

"To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me," he said. "The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person."

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