'Francis Effect'? Popular Pope Has Catholics Praying More, Poll Finds

Image: (FILE) Pope Francis Named 2013 Time Magazine Person of the Year The Conclave Of Cardinals Have Elected A New Pope To Lead The World's Catholics

It was a year ago that Pope Francis first greeted his flock. He's enjoying an 85 percent approval rating. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Pope Francis has brought American Catholics to their knees.

As the pontiff wraps up his first year in the Vatican, a new poll has found that 40 percent of his U.S. flock says they are praying more often than they did a year ago.

It could be one sign of what's being called the "Francis Effect" — the impact of a very popular pope with the common touch who isn't afraid to shake things up.


Although he has an average approval rating from his constituency that any U.S. presidents would envy, it's not fully clear how much the former Argentinian archbishop is influencing Catholic behavior.

"We're not seeing any increase in the number of people who identify as Catholics. There is no increase in the frequency with which Catholics say they go to church. People are not going to confession or volunteering more often," said Greg Smith, director of religion surveys for the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, pollsters did detect pockets of growing enthusiasm, especially among the most committed Catholics.

"One in four tells us they're more excited about their faith in the last year. Four out of 10 say they're praying more often. And one in five say they have been reading the Bible or other religious materials more often," Smith said.

Since he succeeded the conservative and regal Pope Benedict last March, Francis has been heralded as a breath of fresh air: down-to-earth and focused on the downtrodden.

He inspired the Twitter hashtag #bestpopeever — but the Pew data reveals he's not actually the most-liked man to occupy the throne of St. Peter in modern times.

Eighty-five percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable opinion of Francis, substantially higher than Benedict's 75 percent rating but still lower than the 93 percent that John Paul II basked in during the 1990s.

"John Paul II was clearly beloved by Catholics and was popular even among non-Catholics," Smith said, though he noted that he achieved peak popularity before the height of the clergy-sex-abuse scandal.

Catholics were asked to rate the job that Francis is doing in six areas. Only about half think he is making enough headway on the sex abuse scandal or the priest shortage.

He got slightly better marks for reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, which he has targeted with a series of new appointments, initiatives to clean up the church's finances and criticism of power-hungry elites.

His main contributions were seen as spreading the faith, addressing the needs of the poor and upholding traditional moral values.

Some conservative Catholics complain that Francis is not traditional enough, but his nonjudgmental comments on everything from gays to atheists have won him fans from outside the fold -- he enjoys a 66 percent approval rating in the general population -- and in the pews.

An increasing number of Catholics believe change is in the wind. Just over half say that by 2050, the church will allow priests to marry, up 12 percentage points from a year ago. Fifty-six percent think birth-control will be permitted, and 42 percent foresee women in the priesthood.

Two-thirds or more of Catholics support such changes. Fully half say the church should recognize gay marriages, although only a third think it will happen in the coming decades.

Although Francis has shown a willingness to debate church policy, the changes of the last year have been more of style than substance, aimed more at administration than doctrine.

Nevertheless, seven out of 10 Catholics believe the man named Time magazine's Person of the Year represents major change in a 2,000-year-old institution.

"It's an indication that people do see his papacy as something new under the sun," Smith said.

Pope Francis holds a green parrot named Amore that was offered to him by his owner, Francesco Lombardi, during his weekly general audience in St. Peter square at the Vatican. AP