By Lawrence Christon and Catholic News Service     3/30/2015

Two years into what may become the most revolutionary papacy of the modern age, the stories and images still are indelible:

  • The former Argentine Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Jesuit to be elected pope, takes the name Francis—unique in the history of the papacy.
  • He moves not into the Apostolic Palace but into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guesthouse, but not before personally paying his bill at a local hotel where he stayed during the papal conclave.
  • He shuns sartorial splendor for a plain white cassock and pectoral cross, and sensible black shoes.
  • He rides to engagements outside the Vatican not in a luxury car but in the small back seat of a Ford Focus.
  • He washes the feet of prisoners, kisses and embraces the outcast, intercuts his homilies with illustrative jokes or self-deprecating asides, emphasizes forgiveness, inclusiveness, community, solidarity and unconditional love.

Blending the Jesuit emphasis on intellect and erudition with the Franciscan principles of poverty and simplicity, Pope Francis has walked the walk, declaring early on that he would “love a Church that is poor and for the poor.”

And now, as Pope Francis embarks on his third year at the seat of Peter, his popularity has reached stratospheric levels. A February poll by the Pew Research Center found that 90 percent of U.S. Catholics approve of the way the pontiff is doing his job. Among all Americans—not just Catholics—his favorability rating hit 70 percent this year. There was no segment of the U.S. population where Pope Francis did not gain majority favorability. In fact, every segment gave the pope a margin of support of at least 5 to 2. His highest rating was found among Catholics who said they attended Mass regularly: 95 percent.

“This nearly unanimous approval of the pontiff is striking even for highly observant Catholics,” said the Pew report.

Within a week of his election, Francis established his papal theme in the Mass for the Inauguration of the Pontificate:

“Let us never forget that authentic power is service… [The pope] must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”

“There’s no doubt about it,” says David Gibson, national reporter for the Religion News Service. “He’s brought a new openness to being pope. This is not just a PR policy. The Church was getting hammered. He’s been bringing it back to the basic tenets of the Gospel. The message is being taken seriously.”

The international press has taken vigorous notice. Time magazine named him Person of the Year for 2013, Fortune put him on top of the World’s Greatest Leaders list, and The Economist began covering what it—and many other sources—has called “The Francis Effect.”

Speaking during a March 10 teleconference organized by Faith in Public Life, a panel of U.S. Catholic leaders tried to define that effect.

“One of the most significant things about Pope Francis is the way in which he is reimagining how the Church presents itself to the world,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

“If we think back three years ago, and you asked people in the street … ‘What’s the pope concerned about? What’s the Church concerned about?’ you’d get a very different response than what you’d get today,” Father Reese added. “In a sense, he has rebranded the Catholic Church.”

Pope Francis “challenges those on the left and the right,” said Kim Daniels, a senior adviser to the group Catholic Voices. For the right, she added, the challenge is “a fresh look at poverty”; for the left, “a fresh look at how to build a culture of life.”

“Our faith should challenge us,” Daniels said. “The content of Pope Francis’ challenge is resistance to a throwaway culture. This is a call to us to stand for the most vulnerable: the unborn,” she added, but also “the jobless, the migrants, to all who are marginalized. We’re all in this together.”

The two dominant themes of Francis’ papacy are “the joy of the Gospel and the mercy of God. These are different emphases for a church that, frankly, has been tempted by or perceived on fear and focused on judgment,” said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “I think he brings two basic perspectives. He looks at the world and he looks at the economy from the bottom up … and he looks at the Church from the outside in. He’s tough on clerics and he’s tough on hierarchs. These priorities are not those of the hierarchy or the Curia.”

The Curia may not have expected the ‘Francis Effect’ to unfold quite the way it has. If the cardinals who elected him wanted reform, they are getting it. Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University recently wrote of Francis’ 2014 Christmas address to members of the Roman Curia:

“…Though presented…as a pastoral aid to a seasonal examination of conscience, the speech was widely perceived, not least by many in his audience, as a scathing critique of the current papal administration. Such excoriation of the Curia by a pope is unprecedented in modern times…”

In his speech, Francis offered what he called a “catalog” of 15 shortcomings that he referred to variously as “maladies,” “dysfunctions” and “infirmities.” Most corresponded to vices for which he has frequently rebuked the hierarchy, including self-promotion, greed and a focus on bureaucratic efficiency over pastoral solicitude. But the pope’s rhetoric this time was especially impassioned and forceful.

Archconservatives have reportedly been irate, not just over his moral dressing-down, but also the aggressive methods he’s used in inviting outside business and accounting firms to come in and clean up the Vatican’s messy books (on Feb. 13, the head of the Secretariat for the Economy, a Francis appointee, reported discovery of $1.5 billion in funds the Church didn’t know it had). He’s also been at the forefront of international climate change action, conferring with the U.N., England’s Prince Charles and the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I. And he is preparing a much-anticipated encyclical on the environment, which is expected to be released sometime this year.

Always, however, the pontiff has shined an unusually bright light on the Church’s mission of pastoral care.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Miles, director of UC Irvine’s Program in Religious Studies, editor of the recently released “Norton Anthology of World Religions” and a former Jesuit, writes that Francis’ experience among the poor in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America “has made him familiar with poverty and hunger. Rather than discuss faith versus skepticism and other metaphysical issues, he’s trying to take the Church toward addressing human needs. By not talking about spirituality, he’s setting a tone that appeals to people outside the Church.”

And, adds Miles, the pope is keeping the poor front and center, again setting the tone for the entire Church.

“…All our politicians talk about the middle class. Nobody talks about the poor. Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty has simply dropped out of the conversation. The unmentionable is being mentioned, by Francis.”

His papacy also is being defined by what he is not saying. Judgment, condemnation and exclusion are absent from his public utterances.

“Pope Francis has transformed the public perception of the Church that had been seen as “judgmental, shouting a big no at the world. The Church that Pope Francis portrays is humble, welcoming, open to the world,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington. “His vision imagines the Church as a field hospital … for the spiritually wounded.”

Jessica Martinez, a Pew research associate, said evidence of a Francis Effect is “really kind of mixed.” The share of Americans who identify as Catholic between 2012 and 2014 didn’t change, and neither did frequency of Mass attendance.

But “one-quarter said they had become more excited” since Pope Francis’ election, while two in five respondents said they pray more often and one in five said they read the Bible and other religious materials more frequently, Martinez said.

“The pope is not the Catholic Church,” Father Reese said. “For the Francis Effect to take hold and really be long term, people have to buy in to where he’s going. We have to imitate him just as he’s imitating Jesus.”