02/12/2014 08:00 am ET

Pope Francis Tests The Faith Of Newly Baptized Catholic


LONDON -- Megan Hodder, a 20-year-old former atheist who was recently baptized as a Catholic, says Pope Francis' election has been a true test of her new faith.

"I was a bit nervous when the papal resignation took place. I loved Benedict and I didn't want him to go!" she said, adding that Benedict's writing was what originally drew her to the Catholic Church.

But Hodder's feelings changed when Francis first stepped out onto the balcony as the new pontiff.

"The more I looked into his background, the more I heard him preach, the more I saw him act, the more excited I felt to be living through this papacy," she said. "I feel like the transition from Benedict to Francis mirrors my own faith journey a little bit. Benedict speaks to the head, while Francis speaks to the heart. Both are necessary in the Catholic faith."

Hodder's sentiment has become increasingly common since the pope's election nearly a year ago. Francis has signaled a significant shift for an institution reeling from decades of scandal and decline in Europe and the Americas, and has already begun implementing what appears to be just the start of plans for widespread reforms.

Luke Coppen, editor of the London-based Catholic Herald, said Francis has an opportunity to "reshape the Catholic hierarchy" in Britain. There are five vacancies for English bishops, most notably the coveted post as archbishop of Liverpool.

"He has set out his criteria for bishops very clearly," Coppen said in an email. "He wants 'pastors close to the people' who 'love poverty' and shun the 'mindset of princes.' No doubt he will find and appoint them."

Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said Francis made this intention clear when he appointed Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster to the Congregation for Bishops, which oversees bishop selection around the world. The appointment demonstrated his preference for leaders who are pastors, rather than bureaucrats or princes.

Congregations in Britain reportedly saw a 20 percent rise after Francis' election, and a survey late last year of 22 British cathedrals found that 65 percent of respondents noticed an increase in mass attendance.

"What is certain is that there is suddenly a greater interest in the work of the church, and in attending confession, many parish priests are reporting this," Jamison said.

Francis' change in priorities has even filtered down to the grassroots level. In the northeast English city of Newcastle, eight Catholic schools in the diocese have been collecting an "unprecedented" number of tins for food banks, according to the organizer, Rev. Daniel Fitzpatrick. He estimates that more than 10,000 food items were distributed to poor families at Christmas time. The impetus for such a drive was directly related to the pontiff's laser-like focus on "a poor church, and for the poor," Jamison said.

Beyond numbers, there is also a far less tangible effect of Francis' election: The British public perception of Catholics has appeared to change, and many are now drawing a connection between Catholicism and social justice.

"In Britain, the faithful are used to feeling marginalized and slightly resented," Coppen said. "Catholicism has suddenly become popular, thanks to Francis, and Catholics are adjusting to this sudden and unexpected shift."

In a sign of this shift, the Anglican church has welcomed Francis' message. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today program in December, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described the pope as "an extraordinary man."

"The pope has been hugely effective, quite brilliant in what he does," Welby said. "He has changed the sense of direction and purpose of the Catholic Church with his personal example and his words."