Is 'the Pope Francis Effect' Inspiring Catholics to Give More This Christmas?

The Vatican's focus on austerity has inspired the world to give.

Pope Francis blesses as he leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican on Dec. 15. (Photo: Max Rossi/Reuters)

Dec 23, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

Alba Ramiro couldn’t help crying as she watched a flood of charitable work pour into her diocesan volunteering office last month.

As the volunteer coordinator of the Catholic Charities of Orange County, Ramiro has been in charge of managing volunteer work for years. While people have always turned to the charity to help those less fortunate, she says she’s seen a sizable uptick in giving this Christmas season, something she attributes to "the Pope Francis effect."

“The fact is that they have been inspired,” she said. “It’s a beautiful blessing.”

Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has changed the tone of the papacy since his election on March 13. The world’s first pope from the Global South—then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio—clued the world in to his compassionate and austere Vatican leadership when he took the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who championed the poor.

In less than a year, he has moved the Roman Catholic Church away from the pomp and circumstance for which it is known and refocused it on humility, concern for the poor, and acceptance of people from all backgrounds and faiths.

People are increasingly citing the pope’s message of helping the poor and leading a simple life as their reason for cutting checks for charity and participating in events like the Catholic Charities of Orange County's adopt-a-family program, Ramiro says—donations for 2013 were up by 18 percent as of Dec. 10.

“A lady called and said, ‘We bought everything for this family, and we wrapped their gifts. I have never seen my grown-up, adult children so excited about Christmas,’ ” Ramiro said. “She started crying, and I started crying. It’s pretty powerful.”

The Catholic Charities of Orange County isn’t alone. Many Catholic charities and churches throughout California and the world are finding Francis’ actions a catalyst for bolstered faith and increased charity.

The boost comes as the popularity of the People’s Pope reaches its peak: This month, Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year for “committing the world's largest church to confronting its deepest needs” and “balancing judgment with mercy.”

Last month marked the pontiff’s first apostolic exhortation, which focused on caring for the poor and criticized the “idolatry of money.”

Under the auspices of Francis’ leadership, says Fr. Rodel Balagtas of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Angeles, a sizable dent can be made in global poverty—an issue the pontiff has been outspoken about since his election in March, when he called for a church for the poor.

“Poverty in the world is a scandal,” the pope said, addressing a group of Italian Jesuit students in June. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons.”

The estimated 1,500 parishioners at Balagtas’ church took such messages to heart. When Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, churchgoers sent aid and held a prayer rally for those affected by the damage. In the end, they raised $25,000 to send overseas.

“It's not just because of generous people, but there's something about this pope,” he said. “He leads by example. He leads by action.”

Rumors have circulated that Pope Francis sneaks out of the Vatican at night, for example, disguising himself as a regular priest to give money to Rome’s poor and homeless.

Still, not all reception of the new pope has been warm. Some conservative Catholics have been vocal about their concerns over Francis’ papacy and feelings of abandonment—they view his step away from discussing abortion and same-sex marriage as dangerous deviations from the fundamental messages of the church.

Domino's founder Tom Monaghan is staunchly antichoice, for example, and Carl Karcher of Carl's Jr. has publicly spoken out against the gay community, but the pope has refused to support such public haranguings of gays or women who seek abortions.

While a November study by the Pew Research Center shows the Pope Francis effect hasn’t been as strong in the U.S.—fewer Catholics have returned to the church because of the new pontiff than in other parts of the world—Fr. Lawrence Seyer says the pope’s influence is evident in the pews.

“The pope called for a prayer wave, and I had 17 people come pray at the pope’s request, during finals,” said Seyer, a pastor at the University of Southern California’s Caruso Catholic Center. “In the past, I would have been lucky to have a few.”

Perhaps more telling is that 69 percent of adults, including non-Catholics, have a favorable impression of Francis. A December poll from The Washington Post shows 85 percent of U.S. Catholics approve of the direction in which Francis is leading the Church.

Jeff Bialik, executive director of the Catholic Charities of San Francisco, hopes both Francis’ approval and his messages of giving extend beyond the holiday season. Bialik says the charity has seen a higher level of interest in volunteering and donating since Easter, around the time of Francis’ election.

People have increasingly contacted the organization to learn about volunteering, referring to the pope’s call for action. While it’s difficult to quantify the uptick in donations, Bialik says more large corporations have wanted to help during Christmastime as well.

“There’s a renewed energy and optimism when it comes to charity,” he said. “This notion of a ‘church for the poor’ is and should be our priority. That has resonance with people.”