WASHINGTON – The Maryland Catholic Church lost more than 100,000 members between 2000 and 2010 according to the U.S. Religion Census, but a more direct and humble approach by Pope Francis is drawing mostly favorable reviews inside and outside the church, leading many to believe he may help re-energize the faithful.
“I would say the majority are thrilled by Pope Francis,” said Katie Erskine, a 22-year-old youth minister at St. Louis Church in Clarksville. “The vast majority are proud to be Catholic again.”
In an unusual move, the pope recently sent out a survey to Catholic families asking — among other questions — about their feelings towards same-sex marriage. He’s also said the church is “obsessed” with gays and abortion and said, “who am I to judge (homosexuals)?”
Like the U.S. president, the pope is head of a vast and complex bureaucracy which requires immense political aptitude. Unlike the president, the pontiff is also in charge of more than one billion souls — a position that implies immense power — but Pope Francis has approached the solemn task with an everyman’s piety and a monk’s simplicity.
Speaking recently on stage in St. Peter’s Square in front of thousands, the pope was interrupted by a young boy who refused to leave the stage. Pope Francis simply accepted his presence, patting him on the head with a grandfatherly smile and even letting him sit in his chair.
“Wow,” said Danny White, a 27-year-old, lifelong Catholic who attends Sacred Heart in Glyndon. “This guy is really ‘of the people.’ He’s not just sitting on his little, you know, high and mighty church.”
Nearly eight in 10 Catholics have a favorable view of the pope, with only 4 percent unfavorable, according to a Pew Research Center poll published in September.
“Certainly as a pastor, he’s shown me that old adage that you gain more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” said the Rev. Monsignor Joseph Luca of St. Louis Church in Clarksville, whose church membership has been growing.
“Our community has been really energized,” Luca said. “I mention something about him, or quote him in a sermon, they perk up, because he is really this charismatic person.”
But with political polarization at record highs, the pope’s comments on gays and abortion could alienate some Catholics.
Tom Trunk, a lifelong Catholic, has stood outside abortion clinics in Maryland holding pro-life signs and handing out literature nearly every week for the past 14 years.
He said that if the pope’s comments bring in Catholics who are of a more liberal mindset, it would be a benefit.
Trunk, who attends St. Hugh of Grenoble in Greenbelt, called the pope an “authentic Christian disciple.”
“I’d say the majority who I have as friends, who are faithful Catholics, are very pleased with Pope Francis’ style,” Trunk said.
Erskine, a recent graduate of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, said the pope has pushed her outside her comfort zone with his comments.
“I paid a lot of attention and read really closely when he made (comments about homosexuals),” Erskine said. “I did mull over what he said for a long time (and) I’ve come to agree with what he said. I think what he said was that the love of God should be first.”
Maryland Church leaders interviewed for this article blamed the loss of Catholics in the state on secularism, not an out-of-touch image.
“I think it’s more acceptable nowadays to be non-religious in many circles … It’s not sophisticated to be anti-Semitic, but it is to be anti-Catholic, that’s part of the trend which is sliding down the secular side,” said Rev. Monsignor James M. Cafone, an assistant professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
One-fifth of Americans today — an increase of 5 percentage points in the last five years — have no religious affiliation, according to a Pew Research Center poll published last year.
Nationally, the number of Catholics has dropped by only a small percentage, but the immigration of Latin Americans — most of them Catholic — has masked the diminishing numbers of non-Hispanic Catholics in America, said Evan Berry, assistant professor of philosophy and religion at American University.
In the ‘90s, Catholics in Maryland increased by about 119,000, but in the next decade — despite net gains in several counties — Catholics decreased by about 115,000, according to data collected by the U.S. Religious Census, a decadal study independent from the government and sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
The total number of Catholics in Maryland in 2010 — 837,338 — is a few thousand more than the number of Catholics in 1990. Between those years, the state’s population has increased by about 400,000.
“All the negative press that the (Catholic) church has gotten, those problems of sex abuse, plus what the world sees as rigid views on social teachings — or moral teachings — I should say… I do think that all those issues had an effect on people not practicing their faith,” said Rev. Mark Hughes of Holy Redeemer in Kensington. “But I think the main issue is that people are comfortable in a material age.”
Today, the wave of secularism is too much to be completely stopped by anyone or thing, but Pope Francis can “have a positive influence” and “moderate” it, Hughes said.
Hughes has been a part of the Roman Catholic Church in Maryland for 25 years. He said that as young people age and become more independent, they naturally attend church less often. But typically, years later and married with children, they come back.
Now, “I don’t think they’re coming back,” he said.
The pope, whose real name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose a papal title that is the antitheses of a materialist lifestyle: Francis, the 13th century friar who was canonized by the Catholic Church just two years after his death.
St. Francis of Assisi was the patron saint of animals and known for his love of poverty and complete lack of materialism. The pope is the first to choose his title from the saint.
St. Francis “had a great love for the marginalized and the forgotten… (he) lived barefoot, in the winter,” owning only a cloak which, even then, he often gave away, said Rev. Dan Pattee, the chair of the Department of Theology at Franciscan University.
The pontiff has also opted out of the luxurious papal apartments for the more modest Vatican guesthouse, embraced a disfigured man, carried his own luggage and randomly called congregation members to offer advice and inquire about their lives.
“When you think of the Catholic Church,” Erskine said, “you should think of the overwhelming love of God and not of banners and people on the side of the road protesting social issues.”