'The Francis effect' can be overstated, I have not experienced a great surge in those seeking God's mercy in Confession over Christmas for example or the rise in Mass attendance, I think maybe priests in Rome might, and to some extent the rest of Italy too. Certainly one of my hopes, I expressed before the Conclave, was that the new Pope would strengthen his own diocese. A few of my parishioners are young Roman Catholics and their families seem to be deeply taken by their new Bishop. Amongst the Roman clergy there seems to be a certain ambivalence from what I have heard, it began with the Pope choosing not to wash their feet on Holy Thursday and like most clergy, the older ones are glad to return to the 1970s/80s, the younger ones ordained under JPII and Benedict are as confused as the rest of us by where we might be being taken. Secular clergy tend to have difficulties with religious, especially Jesuit bishops.
The obvious Francis effect is in the media's attitude to the Catholic Church, one signifier is the move of John Allen from the NCR to the Boston Glob., Francis has moved the media on if not the Church. As one commentator said 'he answers the questions people are asking'. By refusing to be confined to questions about abortion, contraception, homosexuality he is able to suggest that the Church has an interest poverty, unemployment, economics. These are issues Benedict raised but the he was elected after the declining years of JPII the world's media was already into 'hate the Church mode', the child abuse scandal had already broken and was the maelstrom Benedict's Papacy was caught up in. Would I be wrong to suggest that most journalists are looking for an alternative to what the world has to offer?
Personally, Francis makes me question how I treat the poor but then I follow what he says pretty closely, I get annoyed by his nagging tone but he is Pope, I worry about his lack of English and lack of an understanding of Europe and North America and the power he gives to his lieutenants and the sense of nepotism I pick up. But in many ways I hope he will go further than he probably will. I recognise I will either be disappointed or discomforted.
Unlike other voices on the world stage Francis has something radical to say, there is now a novelty in the Christian message uttered in an essentially post Christian society. In the West where the only big idea most politicians can can come up with is about 'equalities' issues, which is ultimately bankrupt, and is really an increasingly minority interest the further it extends down the LGBTBC.... spectrum until it ends up in the yuk factor, when it touches what most people, even at the beginning of that spectrum would consider as perversities. Christianity if it is radical enough is subversive, the naked girls Femen dancing on the High Altar of Cologne Cathedral are not radical merely the daughters of the new Establishment.
I want Francis to confront the world with its own hypocrisy and to suggest that Christianity offers a new radical vision of humanity, something that is is not based on an economic well being but on human dignity. The decision to call the Extraordinary Synod on the family could be a master-stroke. In my parish I see women, often alone, desperately struggling with balancing child care and career often in a situation of if not poverty then certainly economic difficulty, there is real need for a new 'feminism'. One of the most exciting parts of our marriage course is the part on Natural Family Planning, not because couples want to 'space' their children but because they have left building a family to middle-age and are desperate to conceive. They have swallowed the contemporary lie concentrated on wealth and career rather than relationships and children. Indeed the problem with the elderly is essentially loneliness which isn't solved, except superficially by an economic solution. I really am sick of hearing of the premature deaths of young men, almost half of the funerals I did last year were of young men who died at their own hands either directly through suicide or indirectly through addiction. Societies big problem is loneliness and isolation, spiritually it leads to sin, socially it leads to pain, dysfunction and the grave. It is something religion can deal with but not governments unless they are willing to shed an immense of baggage and start rebuilding society from the soul up, through personal relationships and the family and social responsibility.
This morning 'S' came to the door to say 'good-bye' and to collect a rosary. He was hungry, he stole a couple of sandwiches, he was put on probation, he failed to turn up to an interview, he is homeless and has mental health issues, he was confused or forgot, he now faces custody, he was on his way to turn himself in to the police - pray for him. His story can be repeated time and again, it shows not just injustice but a casualty of our society. I don't know how one deals with him but obviously neither does society, the Gospel tells us he needs to know the mercy of God, loving and friendship, kindness and healing, prison wont help.
It isn't the place of the Church or the Pope to come up with practical solutions but to confront the world with its evils, not necessarily by entering into a discussion about those evils but by offering the beauty of an alternative - the love of the Incarnate God and the teaching of the Gospel.