US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The honeymoon is over, but we're still smitten with Pope Francis

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

September 13 marks six months since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced to the world for the first time as Pope Francis. And now that the world has had a chance to get over the normal excitement that surrounds any new relationship and has gotten to know Francis a little better, our collective pope crush is still in full effect.

That's the finding of a new poll from the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, which found that 79 percent of Catholics and 58 percent of the general public say they have a favorable view of the new pope as his papacy hits the six-month mark. Only four percent of Catholics have an unfavorable opinion of him, while 17 percent said they don't have enough information to rate him (which seems odd, considering the fact that the media also seems to be in love with the pope who does unpope-like things on almost a daily basis).

I admit that I never really expected the fascination with the new pope to last this long, but I never expected someone like Francis to be chosen by the conclave either. We all thought it was funny when the new pope went back and paid his hotel bill after being elected, but six months in, the hits just keep on coming: Someone writes him a letter, and he calls them back personally! He's going to drive himself around in an old used car! Someone addresses questions to him in a newspaper editorial, and he responds with a letter to the editor! What's not to love about this guy?

Well, some Catholics have found a few things. The pope had the gall to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday. Then there were those widely-reported (and often misinterpreted) comments about gay priests that riled up a lot of folks. And some Catholics have been very vocal about the fact that they liked the previous regime better, preferring pomp and circumstance over poverty and simplicity.

A post on a Catholic blog about one religious order being restricted in their use of the Latin Mass drew some irate comments from the so-called "traditional" Catholics: "Pope Francis is a [Vatican II] modernist who seems uninterested in conservatives and traditionalists," one commenter wrote. "This is a sad day, but it has been in the offing since he was elected... we may be headed for the catacombs again." Another said they hope the next pope will "perform an exorcism on the Vatican and Vatican City to rid of the smoke of Satan that has entered." (Yikes!)

But for those not heading for the catacombs, Francis has been a breath of fresh air. His down-to-earth demeanor and pastoral tone just make him a plain old likeable guy, and it is no surprise that his poll numbers remain high. As he continues to surprise us and get favorable coverage in the media, the approval rating may even go higher.

The real proof of success, however, won't come from public opinion polls. As nice as it sounds to hear that people are happy with the pope, the true test is whether the tone Francis has set--and the potential changes he will bring in the church hierarchy--are enough to reverse the trend of people departing the Catholic Church, both in the United States and abroad.

Repopulating the pews is of course a much harder task than getting a thumbs up in a poll. It will take a long time for those numbers to turn around, and it is undoubtedly asking a lot to place the burden of reversing the church's declining membership on one man, even if he is the pope. But Francis has proven he's no ordinary pope, and he's had plenty of surprises for us in just six months.

If he really does have has his mind set on improving the church's image and bringing people back into the fold, I wouldn't bet against him.

Image: Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service, via Religion News Service