Francis ineffective?

BREAKING: Francis has not reversed decades-long trends in Catholic practice over the course of one year.

A new Pew Research poll shows what many Catholics might expect: Francis is really popular among the faithful. And lots of them still don't go to Mass very often. (Also Catholics still disagree with a bunch of church teachings.) Still, you'll find plenty of news stories leading with the claim that for all the excitement the pope has generated, it seems not to have put more people in the pews. Catholics say they're praying more--just not in church.

Aggregated Pew Research survey data reveal "no change in self-reported rates of Mass attendance among Catholic," according to the new report. And "in the year since Francis became pope, 40 percent of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass at least once a week, unchanged from the months immediately preceding the papal transition."

That's not surprising. Mass attendance has been holding steady for years. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, for example, estimates the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass weekly somewhere in the mid-20s. CARA's data differ from Pew's because it uses both phone surveys, in which people tend to over-report socially desirable behavior, and self-administered surveys--respondents fill out a form--which seem to suffer less from over-reporting. (Read all about it.)

Of course, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Francis has energized Catholics, inspired the fallen away to return, and even made non-Catholics consider joining up. (Just yesterday, a Protestant friend told me he was thinking of crossing the Tiber because of Francis--and he's an ordained minister.) But I don't know many observers of the Catholic scene who expected Mass attendance to spike in the months following Francis's election. Catholics don't go to Sunday Mass for the pope. They go for several reasons: to worship God; to receive Communion; for spiritual edification; to listen to Scripture; to be with their prayer community; for a good homily (one hopes). Parishes succeed to the extent that they satisfy their members' spiritual needs.

A pope alone can't create good parishes. Sure, he can excite his people in any number of ways. But if they show up at Mass and find a limp liturgy, an unwelcoming environment, a dull homily, or a priest they can't relate to, there's a good chance they won't be back. That's where the men Francis appoints as bishops come in. They determine seminary culture, which means they determine parish culture--for years and years. If you're looking for a Francis effect, look no further than the Congregation for Bishops.

You know, the curial office he just shook up.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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