March 15, 2014 – The Year of Francis

Ah, the rites of the start of spring (assuming that spring ever decides to make a permanent appearance!).  For some, they think of the beginning of spring when the daffodils start poking through the ground.  For some, it’s seeing certain types of birds again.  For those of us in religious education, the start of spring is marked by ramping up preparations for the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation by our students.  This morning I attended a meeting with folks from Ellis Grove, Evansville and O’Fallon whom we will be celebrating Confirmation with on April 22 at the Cathedral in Belleville.  Also, tomorrow our 2nd graders will have their First Confession, and they are also in preparations for their First Communion on May 4.  Please pray for them and all those who will be receiving the Sacraments during the upcoming Easter season.

We also continue to pray for those on the missing Malaysian jet and their families that the mystery of its location can be solved quickly, and that the families can at least be brought closure as to the fate of their loved ones.  I can only imagine the feeling of having a relative or close friend on that plane and having no idea what happened to them or what they had to experience on that plane.  God be with them during this very difficult time.

As far as us Catholics are concerned, probably the main news item was noting the First Anniversary of the election of Pope Francis as the successor of St. Peter.  Who would have thought one year ago that this man who appeared so humble and meek on the balcony that evening at the Vatican would  be the subject of so much attention from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  He certainly didn’t ask for the attention.  In fact, to the contrary it is his humbleness and willingness to put others first that appears to have caught the world’s fancy.  This past week, Speaker of the House John Boehner extended an invitation to Francis to address a joint meeting of Congress when he visits the United States.  In his remarks, Boehner said that  “it would offer an excellent opportunity for the American people as well as the nations of the world to hear his message in full … Pope Francis has inspired millions of Americans with his “pastoral manner and servant leadership” to reflect on matters of human dignity, freedom and social justice.  These principles are among the fundamentals of the American idea, and though our nation sometimes fails to live up to these principles, at our best, we give them new life as we seek the common good.”

Much has been made of the “Pope Francis” effect.  If you had not been in a church the past year, or were not familiar with the Catholic faith, you would get the impression that churches were filled for every Mass and that seminaries were bursting at the seams.  Of course, as we know, this is not quite the reality, and research indicates the same thing.  In a study just published by the Pew Research Center, it was found that there was no change in the share of U.S. adults who identify as Catholics: 22% of Americans describe themselves as Catholic today, identical to the 22% who did so in the year preceding Francis’ election.  It also found no change in self-reported rates of Mass attendance among Catholics. In the year since Francis became Pope, 40% of U.S. Catholics say they attend Mass at least once a week, unchanged from the months immediately preceding the papal transition.  The new survey also finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are volunteering more or going to confession more often than in the past. Roughly one-in-eight U.S. Catholics (13%) say they have been volunteering more in their church or community over the past year, but 23% say they have been doing this less often, and 59% say their level of volunteering has not changed. Just one-in-twenty Catholics (5%) say they have been going to confession more often over the last 12 months, while 22% say they have been going to confession less often, and 65% say their frequency of confession has not changed very much.

On the flip side of things, however, there were some positive findings.  One-quarter of Catholics (26%) say they have become more excited about their Catholic faith over the past year, with far fewer (11%) saying they have become less excited about their faith. And fully 40% of Catholics say they have been praying more in the past year, compared with just 8% who say they have been praying less often. One-in-five Catholics (21%) say they have been reading the Bible or other religious materials more often in the last 12 months, compared with 14% who say they have been doing this less often.

OK, these are a lot of numbers to digest, and as with any statistical report, different people are going to put their own spins on what it all means.  I think that there certainly has been a new sense of “excitement” brought about with the interaction Pope Francis has had with people and his humble demeanor.  He has re-affirmed the message that the Catholic Church is a church that is welcoming to EVERYONE – just as Jesus intended.  However, when people take a closer look, they will see that the doctrine of the church remains the same, and what scripture tells us is what is still practiced as the teaching of the church – again just as Jesus intended.

I think it will be of more benefit to us to look at a similar study such as this 5 years down the road, or even 10 years.  Hopefully people will see that the doors of our faith remain open to them and that a life of ministry, whether it be a religious vocation or a dedication to lay ministry, is a fulfilling and important avenue toward passing on the faith to future generations.

Have a great week!  Peace.



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