June 19th, 2013
03:28 PM ET

How the 'Francis effect' could rescue the church

Opinion by John Gehring, special to CNN

Can Pope Francis save the Catholic Church?

The question is part hyperbole, of course, but perhaps a fitting way to ponder what some are now calling the “Francis effect.”

At a time when nearly 1 in 10 Americans are former Catholics, Pope Francis is using a humble style to set a new direction for the church that could reinvigorate the multitude, many of whom are weary of culture-war Christianity.

While a rising number of young Americans no longer identify with a particular religion, many seekers still hunger for moral clarity and prophetic voices that challenge the shallow materialism and spiritual alienation of our fractured culture.

During his first 100 days, Pope Francis has emphasized the Gospel’s radical and still relevant messages of peace, compassion and justice for the poor. He also just might break through to reach the religiously disaffected where others have failed.

READ MORE: The pope said what? Six stunners from Francis

Catholicism is not an institutional bureaucracy, but “a love story,” Pope Francis said recently.

He criticizes a “self-referential” church that becomes spiritually “sick” when it hunkers down and fails to look outside its gilded cathedrals.

He has little patience for pastors who act like religious border guards by making it harder for lapsed Catholics to return to the faith and receive the sacraments.

Francis decries the "cult of money" and the "dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal."

He even gently chided Jesus' first disciples for being a “bit intolerant, closed in the idea of possessing the truth.”

You can almost hear the ice cracking around a generation of disillusioned Christians who have a hard time finding Jesus frozen under ostentatious ecclesial trappings and hypocritical moralizing.

Just three months on the job, Francis’ servant leadership and focus on a “church of the poor” are drawing rave reviews, and it’s not just Catholics swooning.

“Seldom has a religious leader been embraced so warmly across the Christian world, including by many evangelicals,” Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote last week in a Christianity Today op-ed entitled “Our Francis, Too.”

Jewish leaders also praise the new pope, who emphasized interfaith dialogue when he was still a bus-riding cardinal in Buenos Aires. On his first day as pope, Francis wrote to the chief rabbi of Rome expressing his hope for a “spirit of renewed collaboration.”

Atheists are even getting in on the act. Henrik Hertzberg, a writer for The New Yorker magazine who is critical of institutional religion, applauded the pope for his “kindness, tolerance, humanity, and common sense.”

READ MORE: Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

Surely, this papal honeymoon will end, but these are early signs that something new is stirring in the air.

Pope Francis seems determined to live up to his namesake. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century saint who gave away his hefty inheritance and sparked a profound movement of spiritual reform, famously said “preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words.”

Pope Francis, who refused to move into the lavish papal apartments inside the Apostolic Palace, understands that symbols convey substance.

As the first Jesuit pope, Francis has taken a vow of poverty. He ditched the silk, fur-trimmed cape favored by Pope Benedict XVI for a simple white cassock. Golden throne? Francis prefers a wooden chair. The red carpet laid out in the Vatican’s Hall of the Throne has been rolled up.

"The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love,” Francis has tweeted.

All of these aesthetic changes signify deeper meaning, especially in a church where rituals and images seek to convey transcendent truths.

The pope’s toned-down style and pastoral touch are also a more fitting brand for a church built on the teachings of an itinerant preacher who in the Gospel says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

If the Catholic Church hopes to inspire lapsed Catholics and others to embrace the faith with renewed vigor, it will require a radical return to the essence of Christianity. Gospel means “good news.” A smiling, good-humored pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner.

Pope Francis surely can’t turnaround the barque of Peter alone, but against stiff winds he is steering in the right direction.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Gehring.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church • Opinion • Pope Francis

soundoff (481 Responses)
  1. LIGHT

    For those atheists who don't believe in anything, and for Christians who don't believe in Quran please read this:

    Do not these disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were an integrated mass, which We then split, and from water We made all living things? Will they not believe even then? (21:30)

    With power did We construct Heaven. Verily, We are expanding it. (51:47)

    On that day We will fold the heaven, like the folding of a book. Just as We initiated the first creation, We will revert it. This is Our promise. We will certainly fulfill it. (21:104)

    The greatness of the Quran, which stated 1400 years ago that the universe was created from the one primordial wholeness(which we are calling the big bang theory), that it expanded, and that it would shrink back -at a time when all scientific evidence was lacking- is understood better today with the advance of science and the discovery of the mystery of the universe.

    See how Quran is talking about the past, the present and the future of the universe very accurately where no else can do it.

    Now show us what did the Earth or the Nature said to us.

    June 28, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • Science

      Boston marathon bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev charged with 30 offences


      June 28, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  2. tony

    How can a supposedly good man, "rescue" a basically, and very false story?

    June 25, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  3. Science

    Can the pope be good and say............. no fairy in the sky needed ?..............lmfao


    A Conversation with Richard Dawkins and John Huddlestun (College of Charleston...


    Two Mutations Triggered an Evolutionary Leap 500 Million Years Ago

    June 24, 2013 — Evolution, it seems, sometimes jumps instead of crawls. A research team led by a University of Chicago scientist has discovered two key mutations that sparked a hormonal revolution 500 million years ago.


    June 25, 2013 at 7:17 am |
    • Science

      When crocodiles roamed the poles..............CHOMP on this again Austin............the old croc not the kitty.

      By Mark Pagani, Special to CNN

      updated 7:48 AM EDT, Tue June 25, 2013


      June 25, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Science

      Hey Austin crickets have DNA too.

      June 28, 2013 at 8:00 am |
  4. Shalom


    June 24, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  5. tony

    I thought that "coronation" picture of him in the white dress with the guys in red, looked just like a "Gay Wedding" photo.

    June 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • julia brown

      If you think Ricky`s story is cool,, five weeks ago my mum's girl friend basically also made $8604 sitting there a sixteen hour week in their apartment and the're co-worker's step-sister`s neighbour was doing this for 9-months and made more than $8604 part-time from their laptop. use the steps at this website............ Cat48. ℂom

      June 24, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  6. mickinmd

    John, you ignore the reason people are leaving the Church: lack of priests and nuns and brothers. The two parishes closest to my home had 4 and 3 priests, respectively, in the 1960's. Now ONE priest serves both. How is it humanly possible to for the church to minister to its members? If God isn't saying, "It's time for married and women priests," then he's telling the Church leaders it's time to shut things down, because that's what's happening.
    You think Francis is steering Catholics in the right direction and you would be right – but the problem is he can steer all he might, but with no sails on the ship, he's not going anywhere.

    June 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
    • Dennis Lurvey

      No, we are leaving the church because the stories no longer make sense, we have information at our fingertips that tell the real story of the bible, who wrote it and when. it gives all sides to all the stories, so we have a choice of what to believe. and we dont believe you. We find we can be loving, giving, generous, happy, and at peace without the church and even without god.

      June 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  7. Sean

    The irony is that the more churches try to stay relevant by focusing less on condemnation and more on acceptance, the more critical thinking will allow people to feel they can leave the churches. Once the Fear of God and dogmatic faith are reduced, reason can take over.

    June 23, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Skorpio

    Pope Francis effect could rescue the WORLD because the Catholic Church is a reflection of the entire world. In fact, Catholics in proportion to the rest of Christians are more stable and strong on their beliefs.

    June 23, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • nothern Light

      "the Catholic Church is a reflection of the entire world"

      That is a correct statement ....but it applies to a time about 500 years ago....religion is irrelevant in this time and age......we know far more about what is true than what the church said was true 500 years ago....as people followed it blindly.

      In 100 years the only religion that will still be here is .....radical Islam....they will never give up ....they cannot
      They will all kill themselves first......in the mean time they kill non believers.

      June 27, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  9. Jimmeh

    In America, Christianity in general and evangelicalism and Catholicism is particular are seen by by many atheists as obfuscating set of dogmas whose only purpose is to provide a hypocritical cover to a wide range of selfish, bigoted, irrational and anti-social policies, actions and behaviors. When it comes to issues of capital punishment, social inequality, gun control, government sanctioned torture and use of armed force abroad the strength of one's self identified Christianity correlates strongly with coming down on the most punitive, violent and sadistic side of an issue. Atheist believe in using critical thought as an instrument to better oneself masting the worst of human nature and cultivating the best. Christianity has long been synonymous with using religion as a moral justification for the worst of man's instincts.

    June 22, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • A christian

      "When it comes to issues of capital punishment, social inequality, gun control, government sanctioned torture and use of armed force abroad the strength of one's self identified Christianity correlates strongly with coming down on the most punitive, violent and sadistic side of an issue."

      Atheists like you are the bigoted and irrational ones. Pope John Pual II publicly condemned capital punishment, excessive wealth, and freed a man that once tried to kill him after a chat(NO TORTURE INVOLVED).

      June 23, 2013 at 4:01 am |
    • nothern Light

      @ A Christian
      "Pope John Pual II publicly condemned capital punishment, excessive wealth"

      Then why does the church possess so much wealth......and try to hide it's paedophiles from justice.?

      June 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  10. swohio

    QUOTE – "He even gently chided Jesus' first disciples for being a “bit intolerant, closed in the idea of possessing the truth.”" – END QUOTE

    ExCUSE me...?? He may be the pope, but who is HE to chide Christ's first disciples....the ones who were closer to the truth than even he is?

    June 22, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 22, 2013 at 6:18 am |
    • tony

      We're all still waiting for that happen. Like the "Second Coming" and the "End of the World".

      Unless you have a list (independently witnessed of course) of stuff that really happened in between your thousands of posts?

      June 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Prayer is as effective as CNN news forum discussions.

      June 25, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  12. EX catholic

    Enough of this and all previous IDOLATERS. IDOLATRY IS NOT RELIGION. IDOLATRY is a Very Very Serious SIN, that leads to many other SINS.

    June 21, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Reality

      There go the American Idol ratings down the toilet.

      June 21, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  13. SL

    Sounds like this Pope is service oriented

    June 21, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  14. Rev. Rick

    This all sounds very promising, as long as it doesn't turn out to be a "bait and switch".

    June 21, 2013 at 7:09 am |
  15. Billy

    “The refusal to take sides on great moral issues is itself a decision. It is a silent acquiescence to evil. The Tragedy of our time is that those who still believe in honesty lack fire and conviction, while those who believe in dishonesty are full of passionate conviction.”
    ― Fulton J. Sheen

    June 20, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Justin

      Great quote for our times

      June 21, 2013 at 7:58 am |
    • the real Tom

      Define "honesty" and "dishonesty" as regards the issues of "our times." What is "honest" in the discussion of gay marriage? What is "dishonest"?

      June 21, 2013 at 8:03 am |
    • Stunner

      Very wise and true words. I wish quotes like this were more broadcast more

      June 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.

      I will choose a path that's clear.

      I will choose freewill.

      June 25, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  16. Truth

    Oh yes, the gospel. The one that teaches you to stone nonvirgin females. Or the one that talks about how two bears mauled 42 kids because they made fun of a bald man. So not only is it against females, it is also pro-child abuse. Brilliant.

    Anyone with faith is a weak and pathetic worm that can't deal with our modern world.

    June 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • jkb1977

      None of those verses are in the Gospels, you're referring to the Old Testament.

      June 20, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • saggyroy

      Matthew 5:17 "Don't think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill"

      June 21, 2013 at 6:05 am |
  17. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    There is a peti tion at "We the People" to ban Creationism and Intelligent Design in the science classroom as federal law.

    June 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
  18. Effects

    Church- We hear of the' Francis effect' but when is the real 'Jesus effect' taking place in the church?

    June 20, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Guster


      June 20, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  19. sweenbass

    When it comes to matters concerning all of the books that people consider to be "holy" (Bible, Koran, Gita etc...)
    Are there some interesting stories in those books? Some stories are & some are not. The ones that you think are interesting may not be the ones that interest me but that's personal taste.
    Do those aforementioned books contain philosophies that people can use to help improve their lives & the lives of others? Of course they do! This is true of all those books & more.
    However when it comes to questions of a spiritual nature (A deity, A life force or soul, existence after natural death etc...), the best that those books can do is speculate. That is because they were written by people.
    Some people wish to hang their spiritual hat on a speculation that one of those books offer. I do not.
    Is there a spiritual component to the universe? I don't know.
    However, I have not read anything in any of those books that convinces me that the speculations in them are anything more than that.
    That is why I refer to myself as an agnostic.

    June 20, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  20. Saraswati

    @I'm sorry,

    What if you don't want to pay taxes? What if you don't want to obey traffic laws?

    If you have a moral objection don't do it. You'll get arrested and if you make your case well you will be respected and maybe even win. If you're just lazy or selfish, I don't think the rest of us will care what happens to you.

    June 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Wrong location...moved.

      June 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Dippy

      How do you "move" a comment after you've made it?

      June 20, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.