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The 'Francis effect': 5 ways the pope is resuscitating the Catholic Church
Pope Francis is drawing admirers in and out of the church, but he's making a quantifiable difference, too
 
Leading — and growing — his flock.
Leading — and growing — his flock. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Pope Francis has won converts — at least metaphorically — around the globe. His conspicuous humility, kindness, willingness to engage with critics and admirers alike, apparent lack of verbal inhibitions, and relaxed doctrinal orthodoxy make for a big stylistic change from his two predecessors and their combined 25 years as pope. Not everyone is a fan of Francis, but the response has been largely, even enthusiastically, positive.

With an organization as old and structurally conservative as the Catholic Church, it can be hard to measure concrete change. But Pope Francis is making such an impression that observers have come up with a name for the impact he's having on the church: The "Francis effect." Here are 5 ways the pope is shaking up the Catholic Church:

1. The pope is filling back up the pews
Pope Francis is charming non-Catholics, and even a few atheists, but on Monday Italy's Center for the Study of New Religions (CENSUR) showed that he's quite popular with Catholics, too. CENSUR sociologist Massimo Introvigne found that after Francis was elected pope in March, more than half of the 250 priests in Italy he interviewed reported a significant boost in attendance numbers as disenchanted Catholics started to return to mass.

"If we project those results nationally, and if only half the parishes and communities in Italy have been touched by the Francis effect, then we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people who are returning," Introvigne tells The Guardian. He adds that he noticed a rise in attendance right after Francis was elected, and assumed it might be fleeting, "but after six months I got more or less the same result."

Introvigne tells The Guardian that the "Francis effect" is being felt in Britain, too, where an impressive 65 percent of 22 cathedrals are reporting fuller pews in the age of Pope Francis.

There isn't any data available for the U.S. yet. But John Gehring at CNN says in a country where nearly 1 in 10 Americans is a lapsed Catholic, you can "almost hear the ice cracking around a generation of disillusioned Christians who have a hard time finding Jesus frozen under ostentatious ecclesial trappings and hypocritical moralizing." Pope Francis can't refill America's pews by himself, but "against stiff winds he is steering in the right direction," Gerhring adds.

If the Catholic Church hopes to inspire lapsed Catholics and others to embrace the faith with renewed vigor, it will require a radical return to the essence of Christianity. Gospel means "good news." A smiling, good-humored pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner. [CNN]

2. Francis is taking pruning shears to the Vatican bureaucracy
The Roman Curia, or papal court at the Vatican, is a bureaucrat's bureaucracy, its ossification and entrenched power legendary. Pope Francis — the first non-European pope in centuries — is taking steps to reduce its reach and clean house. First, he ramped up transparency at the Vatican's super-secretive bank, the Institute for Religious Works. He's also talking about decentralizing power to national bishops' conferences. "The court is the leprosy of the papacy," the pope told Italian newspaper La Repubblica in September.

With Francis in the Vatican "there is something in the Roman air," says Karl Stuebe at Britain's Catholic Herald. Catholic conservatives need not fear that he'll upend longstanding doctrine. No, "the real effect is that the Vatican, that hauntingly complex curial closet of secrets, becoming like a model diocese, abbey, or parish."

Here's TIME's brief explainer about how the Vatican Bank overhaul might help clean up the papal court:

3. Even the name Francis is staging a comeback
Since March, Francesco has become the most popular baby name in Italy, according to Enzo Caffarelli at Rome's Tor Vergata University. (Sorry, former No. 1, Lorenzo.) Is that really the pope's doing? Yes, says Caffarelli. "The name 'Francesco' is the most popular name for newborns in Italy so far in 2013, and it is evident that the impact of the former Jose Mario Bergoglio is the main contributing factor to the name's new popularity."

There's also been an sizable uptick in the number of public places named for Pope Francis' namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. Some 300 parks, piazzas, and other public places have been named after San Francesco, bringing the total number in Italy to more than 2,000.

4. Pope Francis is changing America's Catholic hierarchy
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is meeting in Balitmore this week to pick a new leader for the next three years. And "the more than 200 prelates will also be looking over their heads — and maybe their shoulders — to the Vatican to gauge what Pope Francis' dramatic new approach means for their future," says David Gibson at Religion News Service.

Francis won't change the U.S. episcopacy overnight, adds Gibson, but he's already having an impact on the USCCB.

The so-called "Francis Effect" is showing up in various ways, as some culture-warrior bishops have moderated their language on gays or shifted their emphasis to issues such as immigration. On the other side, bishops who have struggled for years to highlight the church's social justice teachings are getting a new hearing. [RNS]

On Tuesday, the bishops elected Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as their next president, replacing New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Kurtz "comes from a background in social work and provision of social services," says Joshua J. McElwee at the National Catholic Reporter. Dolan's tenure, by contrast, was marked by fighting the implementation of ObamaCare, "which the cardinal repeatedly said did not leave enough room for Catholic employers from providing contraceptive services," says McElwee.

5. He writes letters and phones people personally
Pope Francis is famous for unexpectedly calling people up to offer his support, or condolences, or even set up an interview. Here's how Eugenio Scalfari, former editor of Italy's La Repubblica (and an atheist), recalls his first interaction with the pope, over the telephone:

I answered, and he simply said: 'Good morning, it's Pope Francis. You wrote me a letter in which you said you would have liked to meet me and get to know me, so here I am. Let's book an appointment. Is Tuesday OK with you? The time is a bit of a pain, 3 p.m.…is that OK?'... In 60 years of career as a journalist, I interviewed many important people, and I became friends with some of them. But I never thought I could feel I would become a friend of a pope. [Scalfari, to NBC News]

But while his proclivity for ringing up random strangers has earned Francis the nickname "the Cold Call Pope," he also is a pretty proficient pen pal, says Bob Shine at the National Catholic Reporter. In fact, one letter from a Florence-based gay rights group, Kairos, "prompted the pope's recent warm remarks on gay people," Shine adds. If the pope is listening, and responding, "everyone should be writing letters to Rome."

If reaching out to the pope is effective, perhaps it is time for Catholics to reach out to their local church leaders, namely priests and bishops. Sharing personal stories to replace philosophical constructs with human faces and relationships might lead to further conversions.... Francis' pen-and-paper revolution is truly radical, and transforms hierarchy into personal relationships. It offers each of us a moment to speak to the pope and bishops as if they are our own parish priests. [NCR]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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