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Pope Francis drew huge crowds, but will he change minds?

PHILADELPHIA – He laughed with President Obama at the White House, prayed alongside Muslims and Jews at the 9/11 Memorial, took selfies with Catholic schoolchildren in East Harlem and mingled with music superstar Andrea Bocelli.

Pope Francis charmed at every turn during a first-ever tour of the United States, from his powerful speech in Congress to his humble clambering into the backseat of a Fiat. Scores of Catholics flocked to three cities to get a glimpse of the soft-spoken leader of the church.

“There are so many people who are so excited. How cool is that?” said Megan Nixon, a Catholic who drove from Oakfield in Genesee County to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, which concludes Sunday afternoon with a papal Mass.

The media’s gaze on Francis has been around-the-clock and mostly positive. Vatican handlers could not have scripted a better visit. And, yet, when the pope finishes his American travels Sunday evening in this cradle city of liberty, it’s unclear whether the visit will provide any long-term boost to a U.S. Catholic church experiencing declines in people who identify themselves as Catholic and participate in its sacramental life. Nor is it clear whether Francis’ strong remarks on climate change, poverty and the death penalty will have long-term sway in the United States.

After all, Pope Paul VI famously pleaded “No more war, never again war” during his 1965 visit to New York City, and John Paul II often railed against abortion in his talks.

“If you’re expecting dramatic results from one speech or one visit, you’re not going to find it,” said Thomas F. Rzeznik, associate professor of history at Seton Hall University and co-editor of American Catholic Studies, a scholarly journal. “For these papal visits, the dividends often pay out over time.”

American tours by past popes – particularly John Paul II – attracted huge crowds and favorable reviews, too. Pope John Paul II, of course, kept returning to U.S. soil. He did five tours in this country, not including a couple of brief stopovers in Alaska.

Individual Catholics

Some Western New Yorkers say participating in those visits helped sustain their own spiritual development. Kathryn M. Goller fondly remembers Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. Goller was an 18-year-old freshman studying psychology at Canisius College and “right in the thick of figuring out who I was and what I was going to do with my life” when she traveled to Mile High Stadium for the five-day event.

She recalled being part of a group of young people who set up chairs and performed several other tasks.

“My claim to fame is I arranged the plants on the stage where Pope John Paul II stood,” she said.

Goller chuckles about that bit of experience, but it still comes in handy. These days, she serves as director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Buffalo and annually organizes a conference for hundreds of young people in the diocese.

“Part of our job is setting up a stage so the ministry can happen,” she said.

Goller said she’s “had a lot of great formative experiences” in her life, so it’s hard to quantify exactly how much the pope’s visit contributed to her pursuing a career in church ministry.

“I know it had an impact,” she said. “I could definitely see seeds of a vocation that I hadn’t seen before.”

The Rev. David Baker was among the nearly half million Catholics who attended World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, when a frail Pope John Paul II made his final excursion to North America. Baker was in the seminary at the time, training to become a priest. Like most seminarians, he had occasional doubts about whether he was on the right path. The big Catholic event helped reaffirm his calling.

“Part of it’s the pope, but it’s more the gathering of the church around him. The Holy Spirit works in those moments and confronts people,” said Baker, associate pastor of St. Amelia Church in the Town of Tonawanda.

U.S. Catholics

John Paul II’s frequent visits didn’t necessarily influence how most American Catholics practiced their faith, however.

“He was highly popular among Americans, but they went and did their own thing anyway,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who studies American Catholics.

Dillon’s research suggests a yawning gap between the pope’s teachings and the religious practice and attitudes of many American Catholics. And that gap has continued to widen under Francis. Dillon doesn’t expect that to change, despite all of the enthusiasm Francis’ visit has generated.

“He’s seen as a very positive figure. He’s definitely, as many would say, brought a breath of fresh air,” said Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who studies American Catholics. “But so far, there’s no evidence more people are going to church.”

Some parishes might see more people at Masses this weekend and next, but “I don’t know how sustained it would be,” said Mark M. Gray, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

“More important for this visit is the national discussion about important problems," he said. “If there’s any lasting impact, it comes in that.”

The most recent Pew Research Center study on religious affiliation found that while nearly a third of American adults were raised Catholic, 13 percent of all American adults also identified themselves as former Catholics. In addition, the number of Catholics as a percentage of the overall U.S. population dipped to 21 percent in 2014 from 24 percent in 2007, the Pew study found.

Instead of being in lock step with Vatican doctrine, the attitudes of American Catholics tend to mirror those of the overall U.S. population. On abortion, for example, 53 percent of all Americans believe it should be legal in all or most cases, while 51 percent of American Catholics think so, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, which released poll results last month.

Sixty percent of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, a higher rate than the general population’s 55 percent.

Francis’ visit does represent an opportunity for “people to give the Catholic Church a second look,” Dillon said. “Certainly some people will sit up and listen, but I don’t think we should expect people to change their minds.”

Climate change, poverty

Francis’ emphasis on social justice themes such as climate change, poverty and immigration dovetails with the concern of American Catholics on those issues.

“All the popes have talked in direct terms about some of these issues,” said the Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara University. “What might be different is the accent and tone of Pope Francis.”

Maher provided commentary on Friday and Saturday for Telecare TV’s coverage of the papal visit, and he was at the White House on Wednesday for Pope Francis’ meeting with President Obama. Maher described Francis’ visit as a “booster shot for our society, our church.”

“It offers Catholics an opportunity to see the universal nature of the church,” he said. “These things have to unfold. But it’s a very powerful message he had to offer.”

Sister Johnice Rzadkiewicz couldn’t help but weep as she sat inside the Capitol listening to Francis’ historic address to Congress. But what now?

“I think the results are going to take time. It’s something that has to saturate within us. It’s going to take a little soul searching and a little chiseling of our own spirits,” said Rzadkiewicz, who works regularly with the poor in her role as director of the Response to Love Center on Buffalo’s East Side. “But I tell you, I have work to do. I’m not going to leave that there in Washington.”

Renee Boltri, who teaches morality and social justice at Nardin Academy, said she had work to do, too.

Boltri and Nixon were part of a contingent from the Buffalo diocese who spent most of the week in Philadelphia with 20,000 Catholics from around the world participating in the World Meeting of Families.

“I have this wonderful opportunity, not only for my children, but for the girls I teach, to share some of this wonderful energy,” she said.