The 'Francis effect': three voices

Photo by Kathleen Kelly

It was a frigid, gray February morning, and we huddled alongside thousands of pilgrims packed outside St. Peter's Square waiting for the pope. Heeding smart advice, my colleague Kathleen Kelly and I arrived just before 8 a.m. to an already massive crowd for the 11 a.m. General Audience. We were in Rome for the SIGNIS World Congress for Catholic Communicators, and it seemed that the main topic of conversation that morning among our fellow conference attendees was just how crowded the Vatican felt since Francis' election. We were told that audiences are usually held inside St. Peter's in winter, but the event had been moved outside to accommodate the record-breaking throngs hoping to see the pope.

At 10 a.m., the roar of the flock erupted to the level you might expect at a One Direction concert. He had arrived early -- a move characteristic of a pope who has a habit of choosing to spend more time with the people than allotted on the papal schedule. Instead of making a beeline for the front VIP section, where the politically and ecclesially connected waited, the pope entered from the back of the crowd, greeting those with the worst views and least connections. He hopped off the popemobile and lingered there, looking very much at home embracing a mother and her baby, blessing a young disabled woman, and laughing with an older man who may have been homeless. There was this palpable joy in the air as we all watched Francis model something so simple and yet so profound.

His popularity is something even the best PR machines here in Los Angeles can't execute. It seems like every day, there's a new story about the popular pontiff -- but unlike much of what we see in the news, the Francis stories don't reek of strategic PR stunts. My own observation of him that day in February and most of the accounts I hear have a few things in common. This is a man who doesn't start his encounters with theology or dogma. In each situation, he starts with the person right in front of him. He's not afraid to go after the estranged, to walk with people in their darkness, anger or pain. He seems most comfortable on the margins, with the complicated people and complicated situations many of us would prefer to ignore.

It's with that spirit that we approached our latest video: a unique look at the "Francis effect" through the eyes of people who haven't always had an easy time with the church. It's not an exaggeration to say many in this country have a complicated relationship with Catholicism. According to a 2009 Pew Research study, one of out every 10 Americans is a "former Catholic." If they formed their own church, they'd be the country's second-largest denomination, after the Catholic church itself. Today's video is meant to take the temperature of three people who have been critical of Rome in the past. Has there been a "Francis effect" for them?

John McDargh is a popular associate professor of theology at Boston College. A gay man raised Catholic, John is married, has an adopted son, and now finds a spiritual home in the Episcopal church. A fixture at Boston's Jesuit-Catholic university for over 30 years, he's felt great support from his Catholic theological colleagues and has been a vocal activist for LGBT Catholics at BC. We spoke with John about "the parables of possibility" he's observing at BC and beyond since Francis' election.

We also spoke with Peter Saunders, head of the London-based group the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. Sexually abused by two Catholic priests as a child, Peter has been an outspoken voice for change and reform in the Catholic church in the U.K. He was one of six abuse victims to have a groundbreaking face-to-face meeting with the pope last month. Peter admits he's still not sure why he was invited, as he's hardly a "safe bet from a PR perspective." We spoke with him about his "life-changing meeting" with the pope, in which he said, "there wasn't any pressure to hold back. The pope listened intently and said all the right things."

Finally, we spoke with Caroline Myss, a five-time New York Times bestselling author of books ranging from human consciousness to mysticism. A Catholic with a theology master's degree from Mundelein College, Caroline regularly gives sold-out talks on subjects ranging from Teresa of Avila, healing, and intuition, and has been a frequent guest on Oprah. She's vocal about her belief in women's ordination, sexual reform, and the need for serious leadership change.

"I have issues with the Vatican -- oh, do I ever," Caroline told us. "But then, I realize that the Catholic church is both a spiritual apex and a corporation -- and the oldest of both in the world. Catholicism is undergoing a profound transition, and hopefully that will lead to a transformation."

All three of our interview subjects agreed that the true test of a "Francis effect" is how we respond to the pope at the local level as priests, laypeople, and men and women religious. There is danger if we see Francis' actions as feel-good entertainment instead of an invitation for serious change and growth in our own lives.

I encountered this firsthand at the airport a few weeks ago. It's not the most profound story, but it gave me pause. You see, I fly a lot for work, and I use miles to save funds. But with miles come free upgrade opportunities, an occasional perk I admittedly enjoy. After they called my name to let me know I'd been reassigned to first class, I boarded and sat in my comfortable seat. My mind, however, drifted to Francis refusing the lavish apostolic palace, dropping the red Prada papal shoes, and opting to ride in buses over private cars. Suddenly, my desire for a little extra legroom seemed kind of misguided. By the time my nice meal arrived, I was wondering if I was on a slippery slope: one day I'm accepting an upgrade. How much longer until I'm resembling "the bishop of bling"?

Needless to say, Francis challenges me to want to be better: to live more simply, to judge less and, frankly, to walk the walk. I think that's the true measure of the "Francis effect," to consider if we can live outside of our comfort zones and start to change for the better. (I'm banking that it's possible to do that while still accepting upgrades.) Give our video a look and let us know: How is Francis affecting you?

Today's video just scratches the surface on a lot of issues the IN Network will be diving into in the coming months. Be sure to check back soon at for extended interviews with some of the people interviewed in "The Francis Effect" and additional segments featuring unique, diverse voices about the topics introduced.


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