The reality of the “Francis Effect”

April 08, 2015
Source: District of the USA

Pope Francis may be popular in today's society, but he is actually exercising a positive effect upon Catholics?

From DICI no. 313, we offer two pieces related to Pope Francis. The first is a commentary about the reality of the so-called "Francis Effect" that has supposedly reinvigorated Catholics in practicing the Faith, while the second examines his recent comments made against the traditional Mass—where unmistakably, viable growth in the Church exists.

United States: Is there really a “Francis Effect”?

Before Pope Francis’ visit next September, the question of a “Francis Effect” in the United States has been raised by the American newspaper The Washington Post, on March 25, 2015.

In a survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of the Jesuit University of Georgetown, Washington, the number of Catholics to describe their connection with the Church as “strong” went from 27% in 2012 to 34% in 2013, the year of Pope Francis’ election (March 13, 2013). Mark Gray, researcher and survey director for CARA, called this a “significant” increase. In parallel, there has been a 6% decrease in those who describe their connection to the Church as “not very strong”. What is more, the percentage of persons brought up in the Catholic Faith who remain in the Church as adults had steadily decreased since the early 1970’s, going from a peak in the mid-80’s to a minimum of 65% in 2012, but has remained stable since.

However, neither CARA’s study nor the survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, conducted in February 2014, shows a return to religious practice. “If there was a 'Francis effect' the first year of his pontificate, it was more pronounced among Catholics who were already very committed to the practice of their faith,” declared Jessica Martinez, of Pew Research Center.

Participation in Sunday Mass remained at 40% from the last months before the papal transition until 2014, while the frequency of confession has continued to diminish. And CARA’s study shows that the number of Catholic marriages is at its lowest point since 1965: in 1970, 426,000 Catholic marriages were counted, compared to 154,000 in 2014. There is no definitive answer to this tendency, notes Mark Gray, but the Church in the United States “is simply no longer considered as important by many young Catholics.”

Already in March 2013, the Pew Research Center had noted that 84% of Catholics were very or rather in favor of Pope Francis. But despite the pope’s popularity and the wide-spread sentiment that there has been a change for the better, there has been no measurable increase in the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Catholics. And the survey found no proof that an important number of Catholics go to confession or volunteer more often.

(Sources: apic/cns/washingtonpost/pewcenter—DICI no. 313, 4-3-2015)

“There is no going back to the past” for the Mass, according to Francis

In the midst of the decreasing number of practicing Catholics, Pope Francis recently attacked the traditional Mass—ironically where continual growth amongst the clergy and laity is actually being witnessed—during a 50th anniversary Mass to celebrate the first Roman Mass offered completely in Italian (i.e., the vernacular).

On March 7, 2015, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Roman parish of All Saints. He went there for the 50th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in Italian by Paul VI in that very church.

Commenting on the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus chases the merchants from the Temple, the pope dwelt upon the expression: “you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). For Francis, this refers to “a type of religiosity”: Jesus’ act is an “act of cleansing, of purification”. God “does not appreciate exterior worship performed with material sacrifices and based on personal interests,” he explained. It is

a reference to authentic worship, to a correspondence between liturgy and life; an appeal that applies in every age and even for us today—that correspondence between liturgy and life."

And he insisted:

This is not primarily a doctrine to be understood, or a rite to be performed; naturally it is also this, but in another way, it is essentially different: it is a font of life and of light for our pilgrimage of faith.

The Church calls us to have and to foster an authentic liturgical life, so that there may be harmony between that which the liturgy celebrates and that which we experience in our lives,"

continued Francis, for whom the

disciple of Jesus does not go to Church simply to observe a precept, to feel he/she is in good standing with God who then will not 'disturb' him/her too much."

No, he goes

to encounter the Lord and to find in his grace, operating in the Sacraments, the power to think and act according to the Gospel."

We cannot," he warned,

mislead ourselves of being able to enter the Lord’s house and 'cover up', with prayer and acts of devotion, conduct contrary to the requirements of justice, honesty and/or charity to our neighbor.”

At the end of Mass, the pope greeted the faithful, thanking them for their welcome and their participation in the Mass, thus showing the meaning of what he had said in his sermon. Let us thank God, he declared,

for what He has done in favor of His Church in these past 50 years of liturgical reforms. It was an act of courage on the part of the Church to draw closer to the people of God, that they might better understand the liturgical act."

And he declared:

it is important for us to follow the Mass like this. There can be no going back to the past. We must always go forward, for he who goes backward is mistaken."


The pope’s statements in his sermon raise several questions: are we to understand that as Jesus, when chasing the sellers from the Temple, accomplished an “act of cleansing and of purification”, so Paul VI, with his liturgical reform, set the Church on the path of cleansing and of purification?

Likewise, are we to believe that the denunciation of “a type of religiosity”, comparable to the dealings of the merchants in the Temple, is directed at the Mass celebrated before the Novus Ordo Missae, the Mass of St. Pius V that sanctified so many generations?

But it is especially Francis’ remarks after his Mass that need to be clarified, for if “there can be no return to the past,” what did Benedict XVI do, in 2007, when he recognized that the Tridentine Mass had never been abolished? He was going backwards, so he was mistaken!

(sources: apic/radiovatican/vis—DICI no. 313, 4-3-2015)