TIMONIUM, MARYLAND —
Late last year the British newspaper The Sunday Times
reported that Pope Francis had inspired a surge in attendance at churches in Britain and other countries. The report triggered a debate about whether the new pontiff has been bringing about a change of heart among former Catholics, many of whom lost their faith in the Church after decades of scandals and doctrinal rigidity.
There has been evidence of pews refilling
in places like Italy and in the pope’s native Argentina. The so-called “Francis Effect” is credited with a record turnout at last year’s pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Lujan
, the nation’s patron saint.
Surveys by the Pew Research Center
in Washington, however, suggest the effect is negligible in the United States, which has the fifth largest Catholic population in the world, and where ex-Catholics represent 10 percent of the national population.
The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the few that has managed to buck the trend. It has been attracting worshippers for years with methods that now have the blessing of Francis.
From the outside it looks like an ordinary suburban church, but inside the darkened chapel a seven-piece band accompanies the Mass, which is magnified on large TV screens throughout the church as well as in the café.
The priest, Rev. Michael White, is in demand as a speaker around the country because of a book he wrote called Rebuilt
, about his success in bringing parishioners back into the pews.
"Before the book, you know how many invitations I received to speak? That would be none, ever. Not once!" he joked during a recent homily.
Switching to a tone of humility he added, “there are plenty of pastors out there who are far better at this than I am.”
If that is the case, then the Church needs them badly. Surveys show a third of Americans who were born into the Roman Catholic faith have left it. If America’s 23 million ex-Catholics formed their own denomination, it would be the second largest in the country, after Catholics themselves.
Like Pope Francis, Rev. White does not contradict Vatican teaching, but he has dispensed with the elaborate rituals and ceremony that can be found in many Catholic churches.
Instead, the Church of the Nativity borrows heavily from Evangelical Protestant megachurches, with a kind of worship style where you would be forgiven if you thought you'd stepped into a pop music concert - or a coffee shop.
Tom Corcoran, a lay minister at the church who co-authored the book with White, concedes there has been criticism from traditionally-minded Catholics.
"You hear those whisperings of 'Catholic light,' or -- we have a café here - Our Lady of Mt. Starbucks,” he said. “I think if you want to do anything worth doing, you're going to get criticized."
His church’s new approach predated Francis, with his own emphasis on simplicity and message to Catholics that they should be more outward-looking and adopt methods that have worked for Evangelicals.
"Since we've written our book Rebuilt
, people have come up and said, 'Hey, it's like you guys were quoting him even before he was pope,' and all that kind of stuff," Corcoran says.
"We can be so focused on our sanctuary, our buildings, and wait for people to come to us,” says Rev. John Conley, a Jesuit scholar at Loyola University Maryland. "Now decades ago you could be in a religious nation like America - we had so many immigrants, who basically would follow this tradition. We can no longer do that today."
Although the Church of the Nativity's Mass still hews to basic tradition - and some segments are even conducted in Latin - recent convert Cathy McErlean says she was attracted to the church by the informal style.
"It was a lot less intimidating than a more traditional Catholic environment," she said.
The pope's less-intimidating style, not to mention his emphasis on social justice, has turned him into a virtual rock star even among non-Catholics. Time
magazine named him Person of the Year and even Rolling Stone
magazine put him on its cover. That said, the new pontiff’s style has not undone all the damage of the clerical scandals and doctrinal rigidity that are among the main reasons many American Catholics left in the first place.