If polls and anecdotal evidence are true, parishes should be ready to practice discipleship
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Is there evidence of a significantly positive post-Francis visit impact on the American religious scene? Why yes, Virginia, there is. The most critical question for evangelically-minded Catholics is how Pope Francis’ visit did or did not change American views of the Catholic Church, in addition to how it has affected views of the Pontiff himself.
I am drawing from two different studies. The first was conducted between October 1 – 4, 2015 and released on October 7, 2015 by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. The Pew study is entitled ￼￼￼￼￼￼Positive Impact of Pope Francis on Views of the Church, Especially Among Democrats and Liberals. The second poll is from the St. Leo Polling Institute, located at St. Leo University, whose survey of 1,000 people was conducted between September 27 – 29, 2015.
US Adults as a whole
The Pew survey found that Francis’ personal overall favorability ratings rose a bit to 68%. (For perspective, 61% of Americans viewed Pope Benedict favorably immediately after his 2008 visit.) What is particularly interesting is that 35% of US adults interviewed now view Pope Francis “very favorably”. If these findings are truly representative, that would mean that roughly 87 million Americans of all backgrounds really, really like Pope Francis in the aftermath of his highly public visit.
The October 7 Pew study also found that 28% of US adults polled have a more favorable view of the Church as a result of his visit (which works out to about 70 million people) while 6% regard the Church more negatively then they did before. From an evangelizing perspective, there is an important distinction between growing openness toward the Church and glowing feelings toward the most visible representative of that Church.
When I teach about practical evangelization in the 21st century, I always emphasize that the first two stages of spiritual growth for “Nones” is the establishment of spiritual and personal trust and the development of spiritual curiosity. Bridges of trust can be built or re-built in many ways but two of the most powerful are through a trusting relationship with a deeply believing Catholic and a positive experience of a Catholic institution or community. Pope Francis is clearly building millions of bridges of personal trust with Americans but that trust needs to eventually extend to the Church as well. Most of us won’t have the chance to spend time with Pope Francis personally, but there are nearly 25,000 “branch offices” of the Catholic Church (parishes, schools, hospitals, religious communities, lay apostolates, etc.) thickly scattered all across the United States. How Americans regard the Church as well as the Pope is a critical bridge of trust across which the alienated and unbelieving can draw closer to Jesus through local Catholic communities.
The Pew surveyors found that ten times as many Catholic adults (50%) said that they have a more favorable view of the Church at the end of Pope Francis’ visit as had more negative views (5%) of the Church. The Pew results also found that 62% of Catholics view the Pope himself “very favorably”.
Pew also noted that there was an 8% drop since June 2015 in Pope Francis’ overall favorability (84%) among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week. (Note that the margin of error for the responses of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week is plus/minus 12.1% because the sample was small. The Pew results for all Catholics have an 8.1% margin of error.)
The St. Leo Polling Institute study asked some intriguingly different questions a few days earlier, and received responses that moved the priests I shared them with last week to audible oohs and aahs:
“51.5 percent of Catholics polled responded that they intended to increase their own Catholic Church service attendance and 39.3 percent noted they intend to increase donations to Catholic causes.”
Of course, “intention” is not action, but actions are almost always preceded by some kind of intention. While we shouldn’t expect millions of unfamiliar faces to suddenly show up at Mass next Sunday because of the Pope’s visit, we should all be alert to the real possibility of dozens or even hundreds of baptized seekers appearing quietly and without warning in our pews in the weeks and months to come. We need to be praying and thinking now about how we can welcome and walk with returning brothers and sisters.
Those returning Catholics may not be alone because Pew found that 22% of non-Catholic Americans polled reported that they were also feeling more positive about the Church since the Holy Father’s visit. If true, that means that 44 million people regard us with a greater sense of trust while 65% of non-Catholics adults view Francis “favorably” which is a 7% rise since June 2015.
One of my pastor friends reported that in the course of two days he had received three phone calls from non-practicing Catholics who wanted to come back because of Pope Francis. Near my home, a man entered a local parish office and said he wanted to return to the Church. He told the priest that he had left the Church and served as a Protestant pastor for a time. He had been watching the papal visit on television while visiting his dying Catholic mother and decided it was time to come back.
At the County Fair Evangelization booth in another diocese, a young lady, covered in tattoos, stopped and asked how she and her infant son could get baptized. She had watched some of the coverage of Pope Francis and figured it was about time. Her family is nominally Catholic but she was never taken to Church. Another of my evangelist friends spent hours standing in line talking to the skeptics and non-Catholics who were also waiting to attend one of the papal Masses. There he met a self-proclaimed agnostic (complete with Mohawk) who said that he was there to see if this guy (Francis) was right about Jesus. My friend prayed with that man on the spot.
In the end, the ultimate impact of positive changes in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans will be determined by how you and I — and all Catholic disciples and evangelizers — respond to the unexpected and unpredictable spiritual seekers who are already in our lives or who cross the thresholds of our communities looking for more.
Sherry Weddell is the author of Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.