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The Francis Effect Isn’t About Numbers

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Yesterday in The New York Times, Matthew Schmitz of First Things contributed an op-ed debunking the supposed Francis effect. He noted that although the papacy is viewed in a more positive light than it was under Pope Benedict XVI, Catholics are not returning to the pews. In fact, there has been a slight or marginal decrease in the last eight years:

New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate suggest that there has been no Francis effect — at least, no positive one. In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.

Commentators, both religious and secular, have noted this fact before. Pope Francis, no matter how attractive he is viewed, is not bringing people back to active Mass attendance at least within the United States.

We should not be surprised that lapsed Catholics remain, well, lapsed–despite the the magnetic pull of a single Pontiff.

The attraction to Pope Francis must be understood within a broader framework of the religious celebrity. As Vincent Miller writes in a book addressing the then popularity of John Paul II and the Dalai Lama:

[Both]…are widely known and much admired, but the particularities of their beliefs are either unknown or ignored. Both hold views on sexuality that would be considered quaint, if not unintelligibly bizarre, by many of their admirers. The transformation of religious leaders into celebrities directly parallels the abstraction of doctrines and belief from practice. Religion does not disappear but is reduced to commodified consumer content (Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, 98).

Pope Francis is an attractive preacher. He is an engaging person, who understands the power of an image and witness.

Yet, he has also become a global celebrity in an age with ubiquitous social media. Everyone knows who he is. Everyone knows what he says. Everyone feels like they know him. And he knows them. For many, Pope Francis is less the sign of unity in the Church and more a celebrity, who one must be with. Take a selfie with. He is an object for spectacle, for celebrity.

In this sense, liking Pope Francis on Facebook, following him on Instagram or Twitter, will in the end have no correlation with Mass attendance. Just as we would expect no correlation between those who like articles about a presidential candidate on Facebook, and those who spend hours every week campaigning for their candidate in the streets. The former creates an identity available for public consumption. The latter requires commitment, an actual transformation of an identity through practice.

In other words, to go to Mass on a weekly basis is something different than being seen as the kind of person who likes the message of the Pope.

To go to Mass regularly is to fall in love with Jesus Christ and the Church. It is to give oneself over to salvific practices that order one’s life. A Pope’s celebrity presence, whether it’s Benedict XVI or Pope Francis, isn’t going to suddenly lead to an influx of contemporary, secular Millennials attending parishes on weekends.

Some will. Some will pierce past the culture of celebrity and discover that Pope Francis is actually preaching about Jesus Christ.

But most won’t. If you think they will, then you don’t understand how radical of an effect secularization has had upon commitment to religious institutions in late modern life.

It’s precisely this fallacy that Schmitz falls into in his editorial in The New York Times. He’s right that there is no Francis effect relative to Mass attendance. But he’s dead wrong that it’s because of Pope Francis himself:

Yet something more fundamental may stand in the way of a Francis effect. Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform. He describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.

While there is much to object to in Schmitz’ characterization of Pope Francis (including the supposed disdain of Jesuits toward parishes, as well the one-sided emphasis upon some of the Holy Father’s more colorful descriptions of contemporary ecclesial life), he is falling into the same fallacy that others do.

You can object to some of the ways that the Pope talks about the Church in his homilies, in his off-the-cuff comments. But, it seems a bit much to place the whole process of Western secularization upon his shoulders.

Schmitz ultimately believes that some Pope will come along, who will be able to turn back (through the force of his commitment to religious particularity) the effects of secularization in the United States or Europe.

It’s just not true. It’s another version of a clericalism that refuses to see the gift of the Church operating most fully at the local level. In other words, if Millennials aren’t attending Mass, it’s not the fault of any Pope.

It’s the fault of our local parishes, who do have abysmal preaching, bad liturgical music, presiding that is annoying, an approach to evangelization that is very East Coast (don’t touch me, stay away, my arms are crossed).

It’s our fault: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. 

If there’s going to be a Francis effect, it will not unfold because the Holy Father gives homilies that draws hundreds of thousands back to the Church or holds impromptu press conferences on airplanes. This is naive, the last vestige of a clericalization within Catholicism that just won’t die.

It will happen because local parishes take seriously their responsibility to preach the Gospel in their cities and neighbors. It will be because Catholic schools and universities assume their responsibility to serve as agents of evangelization. It will be because lay women and men enter the political sphere and change a culture obsessed with death into a culture of life. It will be local charisms that give new life to the Church as she exists in South Bend, in Nashville, in Los Angeles, and in Brownsville, TX.

If there is a Pope Francis effect, it’s not about numbers. It’s about the seriousness which he (and Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II) have taken relative to the Church’s mission of evangelization.

So Schmitz is wrong. And so is everyone else who expects the Western world to be transformed through a single Pope (no matter how popular he is).

We should stop looking for a Francis effect in the numbers.

Because the effect that will matter starts in your parish’s outreach to those who long to hear the Good News that God is love.





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Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.