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Are lapsed Catholics returning to the Church under the new pontiff?

Pope Francis hears the confession of a young woman during World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro July 26. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Many dioceses in several countries have reported anecdotal evidence of a recent increase in the number of people approaching the Sacrament of Reconciliation, some of them for the first time in years. The phenomenon is often attributed to encouragement from Pope Francis and the emphasis on God’s mercy in his preaching and teaching.

A Traditionalist website skeptical about the “Francis Effect” cited the latest poll by the Pew Research Center showing that 23% of U.S. adults identified themselves as Catholics in 2007 and 22% in 2013. Focusing on another indicator, Pew wrote: “Our surveys find that self-reported levels of Mass attendance have remained virtually unchanged since the new pope was elected. Since April of this year, 39% of U.S. Catholics report attending Mass at least weekly, similar to the 40% attendance figure last year.”

Which is it? A new springtime for the Church or the same old attrition in membership?

The professional statisticians at Pew would tell the editor of the Traditionalist website that he was comparing apples and oranges. Every parish in the United States could easily double or triple the number of confessions heard there per week if only a small number of parishioners who routinely attend Sunday Mass would stop telling themselves: “I’m OK, I don’t need to go to confession,” and realize: “I have sinned; I need God’s mercy.” Such a remarkable spiritual development might not increase Mass attendance rates or the number of self-declared Catholics at all. (Or at least not immediately....)

The “Francis Effect” is not exclusively about what St. John Vianney used to call “catching the big fish”, the repentance and conversion of hardened sinners who had not darkened the door of a church for more than half their lives. The reported effect is twofold: more people are returning to the Church and more people are making good use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa reports on a study in Italy:

The sociologist Massimo Introvigne, the director of CESNUR (Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni [Center for Studies on the New Religions]) conducted a survey on the “Francis effect”.... “From anecdotal evidence,” Introvigne explained, “we tried to make a transition to scientific observation, however initial and preliminary it may be. We distributed a questionnaire by means of so-called cascade technology that utilizes the social networks FaceBook and Twitter, starting with groups that are visited particularly by Catholics.” ...

“Out of a sample of two hundred priests and religious, 53 percent stated that they had encountered in their own community an increase of persons who are returning to the Church or going to confession, adding that these persons explicitly cite the appeals of Pope Francis as the reason for their return to religious practice.”

“In 43.8 percent of these cases, the increase in the number of faithful is described as consistent, greater than 25 percent.... We conducted the same survey,” Introvigne continues, “on a sample of more than five hundred Catholic lay people. They perceive the Francis effect less than the priests and religious, but are directly involved in the confessions. But a significant 41.8 percent of the laity have noticed the effect, which therefore seems to be visible to the naked eye, so to speak.”

“These findings,” the sociologist concludes, “are very significant, within the limits of the survey. An effect observed by more than half of a sample is a phenomenon that not only exists but is of great importance.”

In contrast, looking for “the Francis Effect” in North America (where only a few hundred pilgrims to Rome and thousands of young people who attended World Youth Day have actually experienced Pope Francis “live”) eight months into the new pontificate is a little like expecting to find Christians in Rome during Christ’s lifetime. If there is truly a movement of the Holy Spirit occurring as a direct result of the Holy Father’s unique pastoral approach, it should be most evident among those people who have been present and heard his homilies and catecheses. The data from WYD are little help in this regard, because the nature of that event always ensures a bonanza of confessions. Statisticians should look then, to the Pope’s Wednesday audiences.

The head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, Msgr. Krzysztof Nykiel, in an Italian-language interview with Vatican Radio on November 15, noted that “Many, many pilgrims have been turning to the Sacrament of Confession in the various Papal Basilicas of Rome. Our minor Penitentiaries [i.e. confessors] enthusiastically tell us that the many pilgrims who come every Wednesday to St. Peter’s Square to attend the General Audience, or on Sundays to pray the Angelus with the Pope, go to the Sacrament of Confession with greater confidence and a sincere spirit of repentance. The churches in the vicinity of the Vatican, too, are full of Catholics who ask to go to Confession and spend time in prayer.”

Msgr. Nykiel is certain that this trend is the result of explicit invitations by Pope Francis, who urges the faithful not to be afraid of Confession. “Francis insists that God is infinite mercy, that He wants to sow hope in people’s hearts and confidence that changes are always possible in life. It is never too late for repentance and salvation,” the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary explained. As an official in a Vatican dicastery he also confirmed that the fruits of the Pope’s efforts are not limited to Rome but are reported in other parts of the world.

 
About the Author
Michael J. Miller
Michael J. Miller translated Introduction to the Mystery of the Church by Benoit-Dominique de la Soujeole, O.P., for Catholic University of America Press.
 
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