News Focus

The Francis effect is put to the test

St Peter’s Square (Getty)

It’s official: Pope Francis will visit Ireland to preside over the concluding days of the World Meeting of Families in August. Organisers are doubtless counting on the “Francis effect” to bolster the faith and galvanise the faithful in the country, where the Church is reeling from scandal and beset by challenges to its cultural and social leadership.

The question is whether the Francis effect is still what it was in the days after Francis’s election.

Five years into his pontificate, Pope Francis has begun to face significant scrutiny for certain decisions he has made as governor of the Universal Church. His handling of the ongoing clerical abuse crisis has been criticised in both ecclesiastical and secular quarters that are generally well disposed towards him. Mainstream news outlets have also begun to look more closely at Francis’s record of leadership, especially regarding the reform of the Church’s central governing apparatus, the Roman Curia, and the Pope’s choice of men to spearhead that reform effort.

Globally, however, Pope Francis remains a popular figure. In the United States, for example, a Pew Research Center poll of Catholics returned an 84 per cent favourability rating, with 58 per cent saying they continue to believe the Holy Father represents a change for the good.

More interesting in this regard is the number of US Catholics with a net “only fair/poor” rating of specific issues, such as his handling of the abuse crisis. There, his “excellent” rating dropped from 55 per cent to 45 per cent, while his “only fair/poor” rating climbed from 34 per cent to 45 per cent.

Favourability ratings are fine and good, and even important signposts for politicians who need popular support for their policy initiatives and election campaigns. Popes’ concerns with popularity are not precisely those of popularly elected officials. Nevertheless, popes cannot be indifferent to popular sentiment.

In this regard, the data show what could be cause for some alarm. Although his numbers are still impressive, Francis is not the draw he was in the early years of his reign.

In Rome, attendance at papal events fell off slightly from a high of nearly 6.7 million in 2013 (Francis was elected in mid March of that year). The figures then dropped markedly between 2014 and 2015, from roughly 5.9 million to roughly 3.2 million. Then 2016 – despite the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which ran from December 8, 2015 to November 30, 2016 – saw slightly more than 3.9 million participants in papal events.

That figure was particularly interesting, since official estimates from the dicastery responsible for overseeing the Jubilee Year – the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation – estimated that more than 21 million people participated in Jubilee events in the city of Rome. The council, however, never did say how it calculated this figure. The Holy See press office did not publish total numbers for 2017 in its bulletins at the year’s end.

Organisers of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin are confident that the Holy Father’s presence will be a boost for the Church – and if history is any indication, they have reason for more than mere cautious optimism.

Historically, popes have been a major attraction, especially for locals who skip the non-papal parts but come to see the pope. This was the case for the 2015 iteration of the World Meeting in Philadelphia, when more than 17,500 registered participants were joined by as many as three million people for the Vigil and Mass that Pope Francis celebrated at the end of the event.

In any case, statistics only help so much to assess the popularity of the pope in any given place. Those who would use statistics to support a pre-packaged narrative should do so with extreme caution. The mainstream press coverage ahead of Benedict XVI’s trip to Britain in 2009, for example, wrote the visit off as a failure before it even started. That visit turned out to be a historic success.

In short, anything more than a rehearsal of the pertinent data cannot come to much more than rune reading.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis’s trip to Ireland will be a real test, and his reception by the people of that deeply Catholic country, where so many are disillusioned with the hierarchical leadership of the Church, will be a genuine and significant bellwether.