One year on, has Pope Francis lured more people into the pews?

Pope Francis has racked up more than 10 million Twitter followers and graced the cover of Rolling Stone, but his popularity in Italy goes beyond pop culture.

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
Pope Francis waves at the end of the Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, March 16, 2014.

He’s been hailed as the “rock star pope” and the “people’s pontiff." Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church's first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas, has made quite a splash since his election in a secretive conclave 12 months ago.

He has amassed more than 10 million followers on Twitter, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and fueled a brisk trade in the fridge magnet, postcard, and souvenir business featuring his image in St. Peter’s Square.

But has the pope, who marked his first year in office last week in characteristically modest style on a Lenten retreat outside Rome, managed to swell the ranks of people going to Church in his own backyard?

The answer, according to polls taken in the last few days and interviews with parish priests in Italy, seems to be a resounding yes – “the Francis effect” has had a big impact on ordinary Catholics here.

Pope Robin Hood?

A survey by Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic weekly magazine, found that 69 percent of people polled said their faith had been bolstered since the election of Pope Francis. Some 57 percent said they prayed more and 39 percent said they now go to church more often.

Seven out of 10 of the 2,171 Italians questioned said the pope’s words had had an influence on their daily lives, while 58 percent had rediscovered their faith “as a source of joy, rather than a duty.”

Asked to nominate the most eye-catching acts of his papacy, respondents cited his visit to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to meet African migrants; his out-of-the-blue telephone calls to ordinary people; and his decision to live in a modest Vatican guesthouse rather than the grand apostolic apartments.

The magazine asked its readers which public figure they most readily associate with the Argentine pontiff, with surprising results. The most cited was Don Camillo, a popular fictional parish priest in Italian literature, while the next was Robin Hood.

Francis may not exactly be stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but he has sternly criticized the iniquities of global capitalism, called for a “Church for the poor,” and spoken passionately of the plight of the unemployed – remarks that have seen him labeled a Marxist by some conservatives in the United States.

“There’s been a boom in people asking to do volunteer work and in the number of people coming to church,” says Monsignor Enrico Feroci, from the Catholic charity Caritas, which each year serves nearly 400,000 free meals to the poor and the homeless in Rome.

The pope’s concern for the poor and marginalized has inspired so many Romans to give their time to Caritas’ homeless refuges that “sometimes we have to turn them down,” Mr. Feroci says.

Italian Catholics have been impressed with the pope on several levels.

On the spiritual level, he has shown a kinder, more inclusive approach on a host of prickly social issues, from communion for divorcees to his now-famous quote about gay people – “Who am I to judge?”

His message and demeanor have struck people as “humble and open,” says Massimo Franco, the Vatican correspondent for Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, and the author of a new book, The Vatican According to Francis (Il Vaticano Secondo Francesco).

'Immensely popular,' but...

In practical terms, Pope Francis has moved to reform the Curia, the rigid governing body of the Holy See, and clean up the scandal-ridden Vatican bank and associated financial departments. Mr. Franco believes this was the intent of those reform-minded cardinals who helped to elect him.

“They were determined that the next pope should not be an Italian. They saw that the image of the Church had been ruined by the scandals and decided that the Vatican could not go on like that,” Franco says. “They wanted a total outsider."

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, says Francis has even touched people with no faith. “In a sense he is calling for the conversion of everyone, not just those in the Church – conversion to a life of looking out for the poor, the deprived, the marginalized, and those who have no voice,” he says. 

The increase in congregations in Italy is in contrast to the situation in the US, where a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that while Francis is “immensely popular” among American Catholics, his appeal has not translated into greater church attendance.

The report said 85 percent of Catholics in the US viewed the pope favorably, but there had been “no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic...nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass."

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