LEWISTON — On Palm Sunday, during a morning Mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Monsignor Marc Caron offered a prayer that all Catholics “celebrate this Holy Week with renewed faith.”

A renewal has already begun, as Catholics embrace the public humility and humanity of Pope Francis. That resurgence has a name: “The Francis Effect.”

Catholics and non-Catholics across the country say Francis represents a major change for the better for the church, and a significant percentage of Catholics say they have become more excited about their faith over the past year.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected pope in March 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down after nearly eight years. The cardinal, who chose the name Francis, is the first Latin American pope and has brought the energy and affability of his culture to the Vatican.

“We love the pope,” said parishioner Jodi Gosselin of Sumner.

This mother of seven children ages 12 years to 10 months said she’s happy that the pontiff’s popularity has reinvigorated Catholics, but she believes the “Catholic faith itself is something to be excited about.”

Gosselin said she and her husband, Philip, love their faith and “pray that others will come home” to the Catholic faith, encouraged by the pope’s words and deeds.

It’s his style that seems to have captured the world’s attention.

He has a Facebook page. He poses for selfies. On Wednesday, during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Argentinian asked a group of Italian fifth-graders if anyone wanted a ride in the popemobile; two students took him up on the offer.

He has turned down the opulence of the papal apartment, opting instead to live and dine with other priests in a nearby — simpler — guesthouse.

He dresses and speaks more simply than his immediate predecessors, and he has focused greater attention on the world’s poor, sick and disabled.

He has brought substantial focus to charity and a need for Catholics to return to their traditional moral foundation, while showing a place in his heart, if not in official church doctrine, for homosexuals. “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem. . . . They’re our brothers,” he has said.

Francis is, Blake Fecteau of Hebron believes, “teaching us to be saints.”

Fecteau believes the pope “is of Christ, sent by God with a message of love and mercy,” and is pleased that “God sent the man we need when we needed him.”

Fecteau and his wife, Louise, have 13 children. Their youngest is 3 years old; their oldest, 21-year-old Nicholas, died of heart failure in 2010.

The family regularly attends Mass at the Basilica. Their daughters are involved in the choir and their sons are altar servers.

“You can just see Christ living in (Francis),” Louise said, and his pronounced sense of humility is proof that “he understands that God loves the poorest of the poor.”

The family keeps Francis in their daily prayers, Louise said, with a conviction that “people are loving his message because he’s authentic and true to the church, true to the faith.”

Blake said the pope’s popularity “brings heart and hope to prayer. It helps ignite the fire of our faith.”

From the very start of his papacy, scholars and others have watched Francis with great interest, attentive to how he tackles the challenges facing the Catholic Church.

Polls give pope high marks

Many are now saying that his straightforward approach to work, his devotion to prayer and his personal choices to live simply are changing public perception of the church. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of U.S. Catholics believe he represents a major change for the better, and 56 percent of non-Catholics agree.

Some critics have praised the pope’s efforts to organize fiscal affairs and to reorganize Vatican personnel, but others have said he has not done enough to modernize church teachings in response to a changing society, including considering opening the priesthood to women.

Pew has found a striking upward shift in the percentage of Catholics who expect the church to allow priests to get married, to allow women to be priests and to allow Catholics to use birth control by 2050, but Catholics are still not pleased with the way the church is addressing the clergy sex scandal.

Even with that displeasure, eight in 10 Catholics surveyed by Pew give Francis good marks for spreading the Catholic faith and standing up for traditional moral values, and 75 percent say he’s done an excellent or good job of addressing the needs and concerns of the poor.

Maine Bishop Robert Deeley feels a sense of excitement about the church here, and said it stems from many points: Francis; the fact that Maine has a bishop after two years without one; spring has arrived; and the Easter season brings a sense of joy.

“Something good and positive is happening,” Deeley said. “If we live in the message of the Gospel, you cannot not have hope, because hope is the whole nation trusting that all will work out, now and into eternity. How can I not have hope?”

Deeley was in Lewiston earlier this month to officiate at the rededication of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center on its 125th anniversary, and he talked about the Easter season and its significance to Catholics.

“We recognize in the fundamental truth of the Gospel that Jesus came to live among us,” he said, and the Easter observance of his crucifixion and resurrection is a celebration “that death is only a transition and that we live with God.”

In his experience, Deeley said that when people “experience who Jesus is and what he did for us, that love sends us forth to care for each other.” Sweeping his arm around a conference room at St. Mary’s, he said the Sisters of Charity work being done there “is one of the most concrete and beautiful examples of the Gospel in Maine, this charity that is the mission of the word of the Gospel.”

Asked about the challenges facing the church, Deeley said that in the past there was “a certain support for a Judeo-Christian culture, and that is no longer the case. It’s impacting the way we view each other, the values that people hold and what they think is important in society. So, that’s the challenge for us in the church.”

The Most Rev. Deeley, who was installed in February as the 12th bishop of the Diocese of Portland, pointed to recent studies charting diminishing interest in the Catholic Church over a period of decades.

That apathy, once a reality in the northwestern United States, is now a reality in New England, he said. “Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine are the least-churched places in the United States,” he said, “and that presents a challenge to everybody.”

Years ago, he said, a larger population of Catholics “reflected the values (of the church) and there was a mutual support of those values, and that’s not necessarily the case today.”

The number of U.S. Catholics is actually higher now than it was 50 years ago — 67 million now versus 46 million in 1965 — but that’s because the population of the United States is larger. The percentage of Catholics in this country has dropped since the 1960s, although only by about 2 points: currently 21 percent.

According to Georgetown University research published earlier this year, only one-quarter of Catholics say they attended Mass every week in 2013.

Deeley pointed to the 1960s as a definitive shift in church attendance among Catholics because of the cultural shifts in this country and elsewhere, and what he called a general backlash against authority.

Too busy for Mass

But, the bishop said, not all Catholics make a deliberate decision to stop going to church.

“The vast majority of people just stop going because it becomes too cumbersome in their schedule,” he said, particularly among young people. He’s troubled by that, and said the church is focused on changing that.

“We need to find ways to reach out to them, schedule so that they can find something to get to,” such as the change made at Bates College to offer Mass on Sunday evenings to better accommodate student schedules.

Deeley is particularly frustrated, he said, by a culture that forces young families to pick between attending church and ensuring a child attends a sports practice or game.

“In the past,” he said, “we would not have sports programs on Sunday mornings because there was a conviction on the part of the culture we lived in. It was an opportunity for parents to share values with their children.”

Now, Deeley said, “there is a pressure on parents. If their child misses a practice, the child does not play in a game, so how does a parent in this society that we live in deal with that?”

It’s up to the church to help them find a solution to meet increasingly busy schedules, which is particularly difficult in Maine because of its geographic size and the vocation of its people, which doesn’t make traveling or taking time off work easy, he said.

“Those are the kinds of challenges people face, but they still feel the need” to be connected to their faith, Deeley said, noting that he will celebrate 40 confirmation and first Eucharist Masses between April 25 and June 29 across the state, the first at St. Luke’s Church in Rangeley.

On May 18, he’ll celebrate confirmation and first holy communion at the basilica in Lewiston, and the following Sunday he will be at St. Rose of Lima Church in Jay.

During his first two months as bishop, Deeley has made it a point to travel extensively in Maine and he intends to meet every priest assigned to the diocese. He thinks it’s important to personally reach out to each parish, and to get to know Maine.

Deeley is from Massachusetts, where he attended St. John’s Seminary in Brighton and was ordained to the priesthood in 1973. He is an expert in canon law, having taught and written extensively on governance of the church, and has spent most of his career in the Boston Diocese.

In 2004, Deeley was called to Rome to serve as an official at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and worked with Pope Benedict until 2010.

He’s pleased that people are enthusiastic about Pope Francis because, in addition to “being a wonderful human being, it’s obvious to me that he is a man of great prayer and has allowed the Gospel to seep into his life. He recognizes his weaknesses and speaks to his weaknesses,” which brings deep meaning to his outreach through his obvious care for people. “He’s also Latin,” Deeley said, “so he does it all in a much more exuberant fashion.”

Deeley said Benedict and Francis share the same passion and energy for the church, but the difference is Francis’ more demonstrative Latino nature versus Benedict’s more reserved German upbringing.

“Pope Francis exudes emotions, the beauty of his life and his conviction,” Deeley said. “When you’re in his presence, you just feel that. You feel the joy that he experiences in what he’s doing,” which is what Catholics are responding to.

According to a Pew study released last month, in the past year 26 percent of Catholics said they were more excited about their faith, 40 percent said they were praying more and 21 percent were reading the Bible more often. Pew called these results “indications of somewhat more intense religiosity among Catholics.”

“Religion is not just one of the things that we do,” Deeley said. “Religion is one of the foundations of life, and when it’s embraced it determines our values and our choices, and creates “the very foundation of how we help others.”

Critics of the church, while recognizing this renewal of interest in the church, still say Francis’ ultimate legacy must include modernizing the teachings and canons of the church.

Deeley isn’t convinced.

“The church has a right to its teachings,” he said, and calls the question of women entering the priesthood a settled one. Each of the past three popes, he said, “have stated, in their own way, that this is a question they believe is beyond the capacity of the church.”

Critic: Francis needs to change church

William Slavick of Portland, a practicing Catholic who may be Maine’s most vocal critic of the church, acknowledged that the renewed enthusiasm of Catholics is exciting, but he believes that enthusiasm won’t be sustained unless and until Francis lays a foundation for change. Specifically, “a change of emphasis from doctrinal scolding to concern for the poor, mercy, love, reaching out to people.”

Francis has certainly demonstrated his personal capacity for outreach, Slavick said, but that pattern must be implemented throughout all levels of the church, making it less authoritarian and more welcoming and charitable.

And it has to be more aggressive about repairing damage from the clergy sex scandal, Slavick said.

Last week, the pontiff made an impromptu statement taking responsibility for abuse by Catholic priests, asking for forgiveness. Slavick welcomed the sentiment, but he said it wasn’t enough. Francis must remove bishops who were complicit in the abuse, Slavick said, and hold them “answerable in this world for their misconduct.”

“A great many Catholics are not going to tolerate him putting it aside in this manner. There are tens of thousands of victims whose lives have been ruined,” Slavick said, “and we expect accountability.”

Slavick, a retired professor and peace activist who served as a longtime coordinator for Pax Christi Maine, doesn’t consider himself a critic of the church. “I’m a critic of the hierarchy. I’m a critic of people who are at odds with the Gospel,” he said, preferring to be known as an activist.

Others have called him divisive.

Sometimes, he said, when he attends Mass he’ll hold a sign that says, “We must do everything to resist clericalism.”

He knows that bothers people, but he feels compelled to resist what he sees as entrenched clericalism of the church, where he says power and judgment wielded by priests and other church leadership are used to control congregations in ways he finds contrary to the Gospel.

He’d like to see church life in Maine resemble that of churches in Southern states, where Mass is followed by suppers and ball games, and where congregations are central to people’s sense of community and charity drives family values.

He hopes Maine will benefit from Deeley’s arrival and believes Francis’ ability to connect with people offers Catholics a real chance for renewed hope.

“People are tired and passive and there’s no prophetic voice” in the church, he said. “I am modestly hopeful” Francis offers that voice.

Teen: Pope isn’t ‘hiding in Vatican’

Colby Perron, who lives in Lewiston and is a senior at Lisbon High School, has applied to the Portland Diocese to attend seminary. He is one of dozens of local teens raising money so they can travel to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in 2016. He said that when he gets there, he’ll do everything he can to position himself as close to the pope as he can.

“Pope Francis has got a voice. He’s not hiding in the Vatican,” Perron said, but “is truly embodying what Jesus taught us” by walking among the faithful, embracing the sick in prayer and greeting people with real sincerity.

The pope is a “people person,” Perron said. “He’s humble and he’s teaching us to be humble.”

Perron said, when ordained, he hopes to return to the basilica in Lewiston. “This is my church. I love this church,” he said, and he would love to minister to the people in his community.

On Sunday, as Monsignor Caron and other celebrants, all wearing traditional red Palm Sunday vestments, gathered at the back of the basilica for the blessing of the palms, Caron invited children to join him. They did, by the dozens. Little boys in blue jeans and sweatshirts and little girls in shiny patent leather shoes and frilly dresses stood holding up their palms, listening to the prayers.

Gosselin said the number and noise of children is common at the basilica. The children are the visible love of the church, he said. “God says, ‘Come to me as children,’ and kids aren’t quiet.”

He likes that liveliness and the sense of community it offers his family. And he’s hopeful that Catholics’ fresh sense of excitement will bring more families back to their faith.

Eddie Grayfox Burgess, a greeter distributing bulletins after the Mass at the basilica, said he was happy that interest in the church is rising under Francis.

“Easter is a time of renewal,” he said, so it seems appropriate for more people to contemplate where and how to fit faith into their lives.

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