How to really measure the ‘Francis effect’

Story highlights

Pope Francis has enjoyed nearly unprecedented popularity since his election last year

An Argentine who knows Francis explains what he was like before he became Pope

Some Catholics in Boston have been slow to embrace the Pope

Young Catholics are taking the Pope's message to the streets

Boston CNN  — 

In some ways, the “Pope Francis effect” doesn’t seem very effective at all.

Despite the immense popularity the aged Argentine has won since his election last year, not a jot of doctrine has changed, nor has the Catholic Church swelled with American converts.

But there’s more than one way to measure a pontiff’s influence on his far-flung flock.

Start asking around – here in Boston and beyond, Catholics and atheists alike – and it’s easy to find people eager to share how one man, in just one year, has changed their lives.

There’s the gay man who finally feels welcome in his church.

The woman who weeps when headlines deliver good news at last.

The former priest who no longer clenches his fist during Mass.

The Latinos who waited forever for a Pope who speaks their language.

“I’m telling you, brother, if you focus on the numbers, you’re missing the story,” says the Rev. John Unni, a Boston pastor with an accent as thick as clam chowda.

“There’s an energy, a feeling, a spirit here. It’s like a healing balm.”

If anyplace needed healing, it’s Boston – the country’s most Catholic city.

Nearly half the residents here have roots in the church. It’s home to a top Catholic college, one of just two Jesuit seminaries in the United States and a cardinal who has the ear of the Pope himself.

But Boston is also a city scarred by a church sex abuse scandal that harmed hundreds of children, demoralized dozens of innocent priests and broke the bonds of trust between clergy and congregants.

To say that Pope Francis has smiled and salved those wounds is a stretch longer than the Boston Marathon, people here say. There are plenty of ex-Catholics who’ll never give the church a second look. But there are many others who say they just might.

Webb Chappell for CNN

In other words, this the perfect city to take a measure of the “Francis effect” – to visit churches, classrooms, coffee shops and bars and learn how this Pope is shaping the lives of rank-and-file Catholics.

“He’s sent us an invitation,” says Mark Mullaney, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based reform group born in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.

“And now many of us are deciding whether to come to the party.”

A few surprises

Jesus called Peter, the first pope, the church’s foundation stone, its rock. In case you’ve been living under one, here’s what Francis has done since his election on March 13, 2013.

He blasted bishops who spend money like they’re auditioning for “MTV Cribs” and chastised priests who forget they’re servants, not princes.

He called for a truce in the culture wars, refused to judge gay people and reached out to atheists.

He hugged a man covered with tumors, washed the feet of Muslim prisoners and wore a clown nose – just for giggles.

He hired a group of cardinals – including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston – to reform the curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that has a reputation for more shady deals than Tammany Hall.

He cold-called nuns, refused to live in the Apostolic Palace and ditched the regal trappings of papal life.

He called unfettered capitalism a false idol and trickle-down economics a sham.

He made the cover of Time, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine that makes no secret of its problems with previous Popes.

He said it’s immoral when the media reports every move of the market but ignores the death of a homeless person.

He told his church to be big-hearted and bruised, open and merciful; to forget its finery and make a mess in the streets; to be a field hospital for this sin-sick world.

For all this and more, people love him.

A whopping 85% of American Catholics view him favorably, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday. More than 71% say he’s a change for the better.

Those kinds of numbers haven’t been seen since the prime of Pope John Paul II.

At the same time, the Pew study found no increase in the number of Americans who call themselves Catholic, attend Mass regularly, or perform charity, leading some to doubt the “Francis effect.” Others argue that those may not be the best measures of a Pope’s influence.

The 77-year-old Francis may be an unlikely maverick in Rome, but he’s been following the same playbook for decades in Buenos Aires, says the Rev. Gustavo Morello, an expert on Argentina’s Catholic history.

Morello is a tall man who looks a bit like St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, at least by the light of a Boston barroom.

He and the man he knows as Jorge Bergoglio go way back.

The future Pope gave Morello his entrance interview 30 years ago when he sought to join the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits’ official name.

“He’s always been pastoral, close to the people,” says Morello, now a sociologist at Boston College. “The simplicity in his daily life, that’s real.”

In his first days as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio gave his priests a vacation, a luxury many hadn’t enjoyed for five years. He paid for their travel and subbed in at their parishes.

But conservatives didn’t like Bergoglio much, Morello says.

The future Pope once knelt before Pentecostal pastors and asked for a blessing. He argued that the state should recognize same-sex civil unions. He had no use for high-church liturgy or fancy vestments.

Webb Chappell for CNN

Like many Latin American priests, he was a street-wise pastor with a populist touch who made up his own mind, Morello says.

In other words, he was Pope Francis on a smaller stage – with one big difference.

“I wasn’t aware of his commitment to reforming the church and the curia,” says Morello.

“That’s new, and surprising.”

Clenched fists and tears of joy

Michelle Sterk Barrett says she’s not the type to shed a lot of tears – but she confesses to crying four times during Pope Francis’ first year in office.

They were tears of joy.

“He’s made me proud to be Catholic,” she says, “instead of always having to apologize for staying in the church.”

The first drops rolled while she watched a respectful discussion about Catholicism on “Meet the Press” last March, a few days after the Pope’s election.

She wept again seeing crowds flock to Francis during World Youth Day in Brazil last June. And her eyes misted over when Time named the Pope its Person of the Year and Rolling Stone gave him the full rock-star treatment in a glowing cover story.

“For years, all of the media coverage of Catholicism has been so negative. We’ve been ridiculed as out of touch and judgmental,” says Barrett. “Just to see my church respected in public again – it’s incredible.”

The 42-year-old comes from a devout family and leads the community learning program at the College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic school in nearby Worcester.

Barrett belongs to St. Ignatius Parish, a Jesuit church tucked into a corner of the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hil.

On a bitterly cold day last month, pastor Rev. Robert VerEecke admitted that many in his parish have caught Francis fever.

Even long-lapsed Catholics are creeping back to the pews. VerEecke said he recently heard from a woman who left the church 40 years ago but wanted to learn more about Jesuit spirituality because of Francis.

Comb through the homilies delivered by St. Ignatius’ priests and you’ll find dozens of references to the new Pope. The adult initiation class is filled with converts inspired by Francis.

“For those of us who are preachers or teachers,” he says, “Francis has made our lives much easier.”

St. Ignatius leans liberal, but Barrett is no basher of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. She respects their erudite, if sometimes esoteric writings.

But Francis has a unique gift for reaching people on a gut level, Barrett says. He uses simple language and earthy metaphors, telling priests, for example, to be shepherds who “smell like their sheep.”

Her mother, Maureen Sterk, keeps quotes like that on her family fridge in San Diego and reads the Pope’s homilies online every day.

“He’s putting the message in terms that people can understand,” says Sterk.

What her daughter says she likes most about Francis, though, is the way he’s changed the church’s tone from Thou Shalt Not to Thou Shall.

“He’s the best thing to happen in the Catholic Church in my lifetime. And part of that is because he’s followed so closely on the worst thing to ever happen. He’s given hope to a city that desperately needed it.”

Catholics here say it’s hard for outsiders to understand how bad things were in Boston, the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal in the United States.

In just the first four months of 2002, the Boston Globe, which broke the story, ran nearly 300 articles divulging the painful details.

Priests had preyed on kids. Bishops shuffled pedophiles from parish to parish. Hush-hush settlements led to loud accusations.

The archbishop resigned in 2002; discouraged priests quit; friends and family questioned Catholics who remained loyal to the church.

Webb Chappell for CNN

“You’d walk out onto the altar and just feel the fury in people,” says Bob Bowers, a former parish priest in Boston.

As the espresso machine hisses in a Cambridge coffee shop, Bowers, a friendly guy with ruddy cheeks and a gray buzz cut, says he was a Pope Francis kind of priest.

He worked in one of the poorest parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, where hypodermic needles littered the church parking lot each morning.

Still, he loved it there, especially working with kids.

Boston College gave him an honorary degree in 2002, noting that he was known for holding “the best children’s Mass ever.” College classmates had voted him Most Likely to Be a Priest.

After the sex abuse scandal broke, the archdiocese ended most of its youth ministries, Bowers says, pulling its priests from any situation with even the least chance for trouble.

Despite his vow of obedience to the bishop, the priest began challenging the Boston hierarchy. After the sex abuse scandal, he no longer trusted his bosses in the Archdiocese. “They lied to our faces,” he says.

He signed a letter asking Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston’s former archbishop, to resign, which he eventually did.

Bowers later refused to read statements from the pulpit denouncing same-sex marriage, instead passing out fliers that said “Love your enemies.”

The archdiocese closed his former parish, merging it with a more affluent church. Bowers, who fiercely fought the closure, moved on to the Paulist Center in downtown Boston.

The center, which is run by a Catholic order of priests, focuses on serving the poor and counseling Catholics disillusioned with the church: gays and lesbians, women who want greater leadership roles.

Bowers says he asked for another parish post, but the archdiocese tried to ship him out of town, assigning him to a faraway church on the New Hampshire border. He quit instead.

Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Cardinal Sean O’Malley “appreciates the work of all his priests, including Bob Bowers.”

“Revenge and punishment are not in the Cardinal’s playbook,” Donilon added. “That’s not who he is or how he operates.”

For the past eight years, Bowers has been on what he calls an “open-ended leave” from the priesthood. He misses it like hell.

For a time, Bowers slept in friends’ extra rooms with his dog Ralph, a Labrador-Spaniel mix, for company. Bowers and Ralph now live in nearby Quincy, where they take cold walks on the beach in the morning.

Eventually, Bowers, 53, landed a job as state director of volunteer services for the Red Cross, where he watched the Pope’s election last March.

He likes a lot of what he sees in Francis. The washing of Muslim inmate’s feet, the “Who am I to judge” comment about gays, the embrace of the severely disfigured man.

“There’s an excitement people feel that’s pretty contagious,” Bowers says. “But part of me doesn’t want to take part because I’m afraid of getting hurt again by this church.”

After trying out a few Protestant churches, he attends Mass again.

He’s noticed that he no longer sits in the pews with fists clenched in anger. He thinks that’s due to Francis’ influence on the church, but he’s not quite sure.

Bowers says he’ll really believe in the Pope when the head of the Catholic Church listens to the stories of victims of sexual abuse, of women who want to be entrusted to lead the church, of gays and lesbians who want to be seen as people, not problems.

Bob Bowers, a former priest, still keeps rosary beads in his pocket. - (Webb Chappell for CNN)

Then Bowers wants to see that same spirit of openness trickle down to American parishes.

Until then, he’s withholding judgment.

Welcome home

One of out every 10 Americans is a former Catholic, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center study. If they formed their own church, they’d be the country’s second-largest denomination, after the Catholic Church itself.

Many Catholics hope that Pope Francis can at least slow the exodus, and there are small signs across the country that some may be returning to the fold.

Brian Stevens was raised Catholic in Huber Heights, Ohio, but his passion for the church wasn’t fired until he met the priests and nuns at the University of Dayton.

A campus ministry mission to Haiti set him on the path to serving the poor through Catholic programs. He worked his way up the ranks, joining the U.S. Catholic bishops’ top anti-poverty program in 2007.

At the same time, though, Stevens, who is gay, had begun feeling alienated in his own church.

As the bishops launched a fierce fight against same-sex marriage, their rhetoric towards gays and lesbians became more charged and polarizing, says Stevens.

He grants that the bishops have every right to express their political views – but he couldn’t help feeling increasingly unwelcome.

In 2010, Stevens quit the bishops conference, moved to south Florida and stopped going to Mass. It was an act of self-preservation, he says.

“Imagine that someone is constantly poking you in the eye. Suddenly, when it stops, it feels a whole lot better.”

Still, Stevens stayed active in charity circles and has been watching Pope Francis closely. He says he’s noticed a change of tone towards gays and lesbians.

“He speaks with a new generosity of spirit that’s truly welcoming,” Stevens says.

“There’s no nuance, no couching it in broader terms. It’s just: I’m here to bring people closer to God, not judge them. With Pope Benedict, God bless him, that just didn’t come through.”

One night recently, St. Rose of Lima Parish in Miami Shores, Florida, asked social justice activists to talk about how Pope Francis has affected their personal and professional lives. Their stories inspired Stevens to join the parish.

If there’s a “Francis effect,” he says, it’s not just about welcoming gays and lesbians into the fold, although that is big part of it.

It’s also the Pope’s insistence on putting poor people first and asking deep questions about Catholics’ mission in the world.

“This is a moment of grace for the church,” Stevens says.

Making noise in the streets

Back in Boston, the Rev. John Unni is energized, though it’s tough to think of him as anything less than fully charged.

The Rev. John Unni says he often quotes Pope Francis in his homilies. - (Webb Chappell for CNN)

He wears a blue flannel shirt and work boots instead of priestly black. He’s 52 but looks 35 – the kind of guy you might see on one those TV reality shows about home remodeling.

A clerical collar is nowhere in sight. His cellphone buzzes like a drunk bumblebee.

Several years ago, Unni’s parish, St. Cecilia in Boston’s Back Bay, merged with a predominantly gay church nearby as part of the archdiocese’s plan to deal with a lack of funds and priests.

Unni made a point of welcoming gays and lesbians to St. Cecilia, even scheduling a special service during Gay Pride month.

Conservative Catholic bloggers went ballistic, accusing him of watering down church teachings.

“They crucified me!” Unni says.

It was a different time in the church, Unni says, when doctrinal conformity was the order of the day. People who stepped out of line could expect to get smacked down.

The Archdiocese of Boston forced him to cancel the LGBT service, but Unni preached about homosexuality anyway, telling the congregants he doesn’t know anything about the “gay agenda,” all he knows is Jesus’ agenda – a. k. a. the Gospel.

Unni’s been known to take that love-your-neighbor vibe to extremes.

Stories abound about him arriving late to dinner dates with parishioners because he was buying homeless men meals. He cut short a recent interview to dash into an immigration center.

A book sits on a table at Unni’s office in St. Cecilia, a redbrick church overshadowed by hotels and office buildings. It’s called “Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way he Leads.”

As he thumbs through it, Unni looks like a kid who’s got his hands on “Harry Potter.”

Unni quotes liberally from the pontiff’s speeches and sermons in his own homilies, mentioning the trickle-down criticism, for example, during a recent Mass.

A satirical cartoon in which Francis is criticized for making the same “crazy impractical mistakes” as Jesus greets visitors from a table in St. Cecilia’s vestibule.

“I almost feel vindicated in a way,” Unni says, “that someone, namely the Pope, has the same approach to the complexities of life and relationships and the church and the poor as I do.”

The priest is quick to add he’s not putting himself on the same plane as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

But it’s nice to know they’re on the same path.

The young Jesuits-in-training at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry are on the Pope’s path as well.

Francis was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969 and led the society’s Argentine branch from 1973 to 1979. He says he joined the Jesuits for three reasons: their missionary spirit, their community and their discipline.

Because of the Pope’s popularity, inquiries to join the Society of Jesus have doubled in the last year, to five or six each week, says the Rev. Chuck Frederico, vocations director for the Jesuit provinces on the East Coast. “I can barely keep up.”

Many of these men who want to join the Jesuits say they heard about the society through Francis. Some haven’t even been to church in years, Frederico says.

That’s not the case with the Jesuits-in-training at Boston College, who are deeply immersed in studying theology and philosophy.

Jesuit formation typical takes 10-12 years, requiring the men to combine spiritual exercises, book learning and hands-on mission work.

Four young men met in a classroom on a recent day to talk about Pope Francis. Three are deacons who will be ordained priests later this year and continue their Jesuit formation. The fourth, a Jesuit from Spain, was ordained last year.

Webb Chappell for CNN