They like him. They really like him.
Whether it's his simple lifestyle, candid statements or the energy he's brought as the first non-European pontiff in centuries, Pope Francis is popular with Roman Catholics — and others — one year into the job, a new survey reveals.
According to the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, which released a survey on Francis' first 12 months leading the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, "More than eight-in-10 U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. The percentage of Catholics who view Francis 'very favorably' now rivals the number who felt equally positive about Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s, though Francis' overall favorability rating remains a few points shy of that of the long-serving Polish pope."
Pew's announcement added, "Seven-in-10 U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56 (percent) of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better."
Translating that popularity into church attendance and participation might be another story, however.
"There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often," Pew reports.
Pew based its reporting on a survey conducted Feb. 14-23 among a national sample of 1,821 adults (including 351 Catholics). The group reports Pope Francis' "net favorable" rating among U.S. Catholics — those who view the pope "mostly" or "very" favorably, is at 85 percent, versus 74 percent a year ago for his predecessor the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, whose retirement last year — a move not take in six centuries — created the vacancy the Argentinan Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected to fill.
The celebrations of his papacy have been many and varied. Not only did the Vatican City's post office commemorate his election with a postage stamp, but so did Italy and his native Argentina. "Francisco" and variants thereof has surged to become a popular baby name in Italy and elsewhere, according to baby-name site Nameberry. And the Italian media conglomerate Mondadori, the country's top publisher, launched "Il Mio Papa," or, "My Pope," as a weekly "fanzine" complete with a centerfold, as The New York Times reported this week.
According to the Times, "'It’s a sort of fanzine, but of course it can’t be like something you’d do for (popular boy band) One Direction,'" said the ("My Pope") magazine’s editor, Aldo Vitali. 'We aim to be more respectful, more noble.'"
The adulation appears to have its limits for its subject. Speaking this week with Italian and Argentinan newspapers, Francis deplored the projection of him as someone with extra-mortal powers: "'To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me,'" the Reuters news agency quotes Francis as saying. "'The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone else, a normal person,' he said."
Though he may view himself as "a normal person," Pope Francis is not "like everyone else" in one key aspect: his ability to make waves with just a word or two. Pope Francis' suggestion that the church might accept "civil unions" between same-sex partners and others instead of marriage — as some reports, including one in the Huffington Post, put it — set off global murmurs. But according to Vatican Insider, his actual words were far more measured and nuanced:
"On the question of marriage and civil unions, the Pope reaffirmed that 'marriage is between a man and a woman,'" the online news service reported. "States seek to justify civil unions 'to regularize different situations of living together,' pushed by the need to regularize the economic aspects between people, such as, for example, to ensure health care,' (Francis) said. 'We have to look at the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.'"
Another comment sparking discussion was also found in The Wall Street Journal's account of Francis' interview with the editor of "Corrierre della Serra," a top Italian daily, that was also published in Argentina's leading daily, "La Nacion."
"(T)he pope said that women could have greater decision-making power in the church's hierarchy," the Journal reported. "... But the pope suggested even bigger changes could be in store, with a senior cardinal now consulting female experts in considering possible options. 'Women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas of the church,' he said. 'But I would call this a "functional" promotion. That won't take us very far.'"
Overall, Francis is gaining kudos for navigating tough shoals in his first year. Editorializing on those 12 months, The New York Times lauded the pontiff: "Pope Francis seems to have used his first year to size up the challenges in Rome and the world at large. He has stoked public interest well beyond the church faithful. ... Fortunately, he has larger issues on his agenda, like confronting global poverty, which will benefit from his focus and his words."