Kurt Martens, an associate professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told CNA that Pope Francis, through his actions, has “gained a lot of credit in secular society, among those who were skeptical towards the Church.”
A study by Pew Research Center, released Sept. 12, found that nearly 80 percent of Catholics in the U.S. hold a favorable view of Pope Francis, while just four percent said they hold an unfavorable view. Support among the general U.S. population was also high, with 58 percent of respondents saying they view the Pope favorably.
A Pew analysis explained that these numbers have remained “largely unchanged” since Pope Francis was elected six months ago, on March 13.
Martens noted that some of this support could be part of a “honeymoon phase,” which may decline as the Pope addresses more controversial topics. However, the scholar also said that non-believers and lapsed Catholics are finding the Pope largely sympathetic.
Among the highlights of the last six months, Martens said, was the Pope’s call for a Sept. 7 prayer vigil for peace in Syria, which drew 100,000 people to St. Peter’s Square and prompted thousands of similar local events around the world.
This vigil could foreshadow Vatican diplomacy’s return to the “golden years” of the John Paul II era, which witnessed victory over Soviet communism and the prevention of war between Chile and Argentina, the scholar said.
He suggested that Pope Francis’ public stands, combined with the skill of the Holy See’s new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, could mean the Vatican will “play an even larger role” in international affairs than it has in the past.
“That would be great if the Holy See could play a renewed role as peacemaker in the world,” he said.
In addition, Martens praised the Pope’s “very strong attention to the poor,” characterizing this visible show of concern for those on the margins of society as “very evangelical and noble.”
He said that Pope Francis’ July 8 visit to refugee centers on the Italian island of Lampedusa was “very prophetic,” given the prevalent indifference to the plight of immigrants. The Pope was “reaching out to those people who were looking for a better future,” the professor said.
Father Daniel Pattee, T.O.R., the theology department chair at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said that the New Evangelization has been a theme in the Pope’s first six months.
“Pope Francis is concerned about so many Catholics becoming neglectful of their faith by soft-peddling its requirements,” he explained. “He has also attempted to light a fire among the hierarchy to what is most important about their shepherding God’s People and he has called upon bishops and priests alike to become men of service.”
Fr. Pattee suggested that Pope Francis’ decision to reside at Casa Santa Maria, rather than in the papal apartments, has helped boost his appeal.
“I think this Pope is reaching people on a daily basis by his decision to live no different from any of the priests throughout the world who serve in parishes,” he stressed. “This venue has given his papacy an accessibility to the day-to-day problems and difficulties that most people face in their lives as they go to work, serve in families, or attempt to minister to others.”
Daily Mass at the papal house makes attendees “feel like we are all in attendance at daily Mass with our parish priest,” he observed.
Looking to the future, Fr. Pattee said that Pope Francis will likely focus much of his papacy on the reform of the Vatican’s administration, the Roman Curia.
According to Martens, an expert on the curia who advises the U.S. bishops on canon law and church governance, this reform could be “most difficult” because it involves changing the mentality within the Vatican.
Careerism, communications problems and a lack of accountability are continuing problems in the curia, he said.
He noted with concern reports about Monsignor Battista Mario Salvatore Ricca, the newly appointed temporary prelate of the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank. According to Vatican analyst Sandro Magister, certain evidence of the priest’s alleged past homosexual relationship was missing or removed from his personnel file when he was appointed.
Martens described it as “a bit dangerous and a bit disappointing” that “these mistakes are made,” suggesting that the handling of the file deserves additional scrutiny.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said.
Faced with both the immense task of curia reform and the Church’s ongoing call to evangelize, Fr. Pattee said that the Holy Father’s personal witness thorough his actions and simple style of “living, preaching and governing the Church” are key.
Referencing the well-known “Prayer of St. Francis,” he said that the Pope is “more about actions than words, understanding than being understood, loving than being loved."
In his first six months as Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis has shown his distinct style through a “prophetic” concern for the poor and a continuing outreach to those on the margins of society, say Catholic observers.