By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Less than a year into his pontificate, Pope Francis has become a phenomenon far beyond the Catholic Church.
As Time magazine observed in naming him Person of the Year, Pope Francis has captured the imagination of "young and old, faithful and cynical," by placing himself at the center of important conversations of the times: "about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power."
"At a time when the limits of leadership are being tested in so many places, along comes a man with no army or weapons, no kingdom beyond a tight fist of land in the middle of Rome but with the immense wealth and weight of history behind him, to throw down a challenge," said Nancy Gibbs, Time’s managing editor, in explaining the choice.
By changing not the doctrine of the church but the tone and focus given to everyday issues, Pope Francis has become a part of admiring dinner table and happy hour conversations among people who previously may have given little thought to anything a pope did.
"The reason what he does is so powerful is he talks like Jesus and acts like Jesus," said Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter and adviser to President George W. Bush and now a columnist for The Washington Post, author and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was among panelists at a Dec. 2 program at Georgetown University sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, on the topic of Pope Francis and the poor.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a political independent who is Jewish, has become fond of quoting the pope, more than once citing his remarks on financial inequality on the floor of the Senate.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a Presbyterian, indirectly quoted the pope’s call to help people who are persecuted for their religion, having the Congressional Record print the text of a speech on the topic by New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, delivered to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their November meeting.
In a Dec. 4 speech on economic mobility, President Barack Obama quoted the pope’s apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), published Nov. 26.
Observing that economic inequality has increased across the developed world and that "the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed," Obama added: "Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. ‘How can it be,’ he wrote, ‘that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?’"
Among the indicators of the pope’s broad popularity are polls showing "strongly favorable" views of Pope Francis among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Dec. 11 found 92 percent of American Catholics have a favorable impression of the pope, including 63 percent with a "strongly favorable" impression. It also found 69 percent of all U.S. adults have a favorable impression of him.
Pope Francis also topped the list of most talked-about topics worldwide in 2013 on the social network site, Facebook. Elections worldwide, the British royal baby, Super Typhoon Haiyan, the Boston Marathon bombing, pop star Miley Cyrus and Nelson Mandela were among the rest of the top topics.
That interest is reflected in the wide range of nonreligious news organizations that have devoted significant reporting to the pope. Websites such as HuffPost and Daily Kos, both often associated with liberal politics, have devoted considerable space to Pope Francis. Esquire and Us magazines, neither typically big on religion reporting, have featured him in recent weeks as well.
Within the U.S. Catholic Church, immediate effects of the new pope’s influence have been subtle. The Pew Research Center said that it has found no increase in church attendance over the last nine months, despite reports of such by Catholic clergy in Italy, Britain and other countries.
Pew also reported that there’s been no change in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholics, which has been about 22 or 23 percent of the population since 2007.
One indication of how Americans respond to the tone set by Pope Francis may come as bishops prepare for next year’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops. For the first time. Everyday Catholics are being encouraged in many dioceses to weigh in on the synod topic — the family.
Some dioceses are encouraging people to go to an online site such as SurveyMonkey to give their opinions about the preparation documents for the synod.
The synod’s secretary-general, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, sent bishops’ conferences a preparatory document that included a 39-item questionnaire asking about the promotion and acceptance of Catholic teachings on marriage and the family, and cultural and social challenges to those teachings.
It asks about divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, same-sex unions and contraception. Some dioceses have posted the document’s rather academically worded questionnaire directly. Other dioceses have rewritten the material so the questions relate more directly to individuals and families rather than diocesan administrators.
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