Pope Francis has become amazingly popular during his first year in office, but a Pew Research Center poll suggests that popularity hasn’t resulted in increased church attendance, which is not surprising since the pope doesn’t preach in local churches.
About 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholic, and of those, about 40 percent attend services on a regular basis. According to Pew, that hasn’t changed in the last year.
On the other hand, 80 percent of Americans seem to like the pope, the survey reported.
It was the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill who coined the phrase “all politics is local.” That goes double for the church.
My own guess is that Pope Francis in the long run will renew the “Church,” the mystical body of Christian believers who want to follow Christ. I doubt very much that his papacy will do all that much to stem the tide of disenchantment with the parish “church.”
There are a lot of reasons for that, some good and some not so good.
We live in a time in which participation in social organizations is under stress everywhere. Our Rotary Clubs and Boy Scout organizations, our bowling leagues and our youth organizations all find it difficult to maintain membership.
So it is not just the fault of our beleaguered parish pastors that church attendance is stagnant or slipping. It’s part of a cultural trend.
At the same time, if you should be inspired by Pope Francis and decide to check out a church -- Catholic or Protestant, I don’t care -- are you going to find the witness of Francis on view? And would you want to return if it was?
The pope’s witness is to the poor and the outcast. He says his pastors should “smell like sheep.” Do you want your pastor to smell like a sheep?
Francis is one of the most radical religious leaders we’ve seen in decades. His humility and his rejection of pomp and pomposity inspire us all.
Those of us who make our livings as religious professionals would like very much to share the enthusiasm the world shows for the pope, but we don’t want to take the risk of actually emulating his witness.
If we did, we might find our churches filled or we might find our churches emptier than they are today.
We might be smart, however, to take seriously the enthusiasm the pope has engendered around the world. Apparently, there is an attraction to authenticity.
And if those of us who make decent livings proclaiming the message of Jesus actually started living authentically, we might not even care if our churches were full.