Within the last year, the Catholic Church has garnered a bounty of something it hasn't seen in decades: positive attention.
The man responsible for the change in the Church's public reputation is Pope Francis, a candid Jesuit who seems a world away from his traditionalist predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. His effect on the Church seems so palpable that it has a name: the Francis effect -- the idea that that he has brought change to the Church and, by doing so, can call the world's wayward Catholics back to Mass in droves.
Recently, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll that revealed the promise -- and the shortcomings -- of the Francis effect. According to the poll, over 80 percent of Catholics view him as the leader in a favorable change for the Church, a new direction for a centuries-old institution not exactly notorious for changing its mind on anything. Francis' popularity ratings hearken back to the days of Pope John Paul II, whose emphasis on interfaith dialogue and the importance of young Catholics won huge approval from believers and non-believers alike.
However, the results of the poll also suggested that regular Mass attendance, volunteer service and attendance at the sacrament of Reconciliation have not significantly increased since Pope Francis stepped into the Vatican. Now, people are asking, "Why?"
The answer is because one man, no matter how revolutionary or wonderful, cannot save a Church damaged by decades of indiscretion and abuse in one year.
This isn't to say that Pope Francis hasn't had a positive affect on churchgoers. A mountain of anecdotal evidence stands in support of Francis for creating a more welcoming Church for single mothers, for gay, lesbian and bisexual Catholics, and anybody who hasn't really been traditionally welcomed at his or her local parish's doors. For many, Pope Francis drew open the dusty curtains of a rules-obsessed Vatican and let the light in.
But it will undoubtedly take more than one man and one year to win back the people who have left the Church in the face of decades of sexual abuse of children, and the calculated concealment thereof. People do not simply forget such things quickly.
Pope Francis hasn't forgotten, either: He overhauled Vatican law with regard to sex abuse, specifically instating a law against sex crimes against children (why wasn't that a law before?), and creating a commission to advise him in handling sex abuses cases. In what was certainly one of his first unpopular moves, he also recently defended the Church's handling of sexual abuse by priests in an interview where he said that the Church acted with "transparency" and "responsibility," words that must have been hard to hear for the survivors of such abuse.
Then, of course, there is the issue of the Church's not-exactly-popular teachings regarding the ordination of women (in a word, "no"), contraception ("nope"), and same-sex marriage ("definitely, definitely not"). Although the Pope has certainly taken a less judgmental stance on these issues and crafts his words carefully around them, he has not taken any steps to change Church teachings on any controversial social issue. He can't, because he is one man, operating within the context of the deep Catholic faith and respect for tradition that brought him to the Vatican in the first place.
Is the Church headed in the right direction? Most people seem to think so, and many people have hope where there seemed to be none just a year ago. Will it take more than a year to get "there," wherever "there" happens to be for an institution with billions of followers and centuries of history? Without a doubt. Despite his rampant popularity and sound bytes that give lapsed Catholics great hope, Pope Francis cannot save a Church by himself, nor should he have to. He must act with the entire hierarchy to create a more accessible Church that recognizes its shortcomings and faults while simultaneously trying to set the example for its followers in deed, rather than solely word.