- - Thursday, December 26, 2013


No doubt about it — the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the religious figure of 2013. Time magazine confirmed this by naming the Argentine cardinal now known as Pope Francis as Person of the Year, and a survey of Religion Newswriters Association members this month designated his election as the top religion story of the year.

The hope inspired by the pontiff seems palpable and is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Everyone — even atheists — seems charmed by this quiet, unassuming man who telephoned the local newsstand in Buenos Aires after his election to cancel his daily paper, rides around in a simple, older-model Ford Focus, and eschews pomp for personal contact with people of all classes, races and walks of life.

It should be noted that Pope Francis has not changed Catholic theology or teachings or beliefs, even if his language has been strikingly different from some of his predecessors. The church still opposes abortion, believes marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, and says sex is intended for expression in such a marriage and not elsewhere. But rather than whacking critics across the nose with a theological two-by-four, Francis apparently wants to engage, befriend and gently persuade. If he cannot persuade you, he at least wants you to respect his viewpoint and to know that he respects, to some degree, yours.

Although Francis’ kinder and gentler tone has won all sorts of followers outside of his 1.2 billion-member congregation, it is yet to be seen whether that will translate to more people in the pews. Year-end surveys are uneven about the concrete results of the “Francis effect,” and no one is reporting a large rush of new or returning members.

If anything, the nonbelieving/secular reaction to Francis might be viewed just as easily as symbolic of the “spiritual but not religious” trend, in which many are happy to admire him from afar but have no desire for a deeper personal involvement. One can, after all, admire all sorts of things without making much of a commitment.

Not all was easy or simple in the religion world in 2013, and not all looks bright in the year ahead. While responding Religion Newswriters Association members ranked it No. 8 out of 10, I found this news a bit more disturbing: “More than 1 in 5 Jews in America now report having no religion, according to a landmark survey from the Pew Research Center. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.” The Pew Research data were released in the autumn.

Faith, or the absence of it, is a matter of personal choice, or so we believe in the West, particularly, perhaps, in the United States. That said, the loss of tens of thousands from Judaism’s active ranks to “no religion” status is disheartening and should be a matter of concern. Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue of America, Conservative Judaism’s governing body, acknowledged this year the challenges the group’s congregations face in attracting and retaining younger members.

One thing I’ve noticed in many contexts is the diminishing role Scripture and religious authority seem to play for people of varying ages and beliefs. Again, the “spiritual but not religious” flag is flown most often in these cases, but the seeming overall lack of understanding that there is a message in the Bible that is applicable in a variety of circumstances to meet a wide range of needs — something almost implicitly understood in decades past — is bracing.

Then again, as we cited here a couple of weeks back, David Jeremiah, a popular evangelical speaker and teacher, says he is energized by the prospect of making Scripture relevant to those who aren’t familiar with its message. That may well be the best approach as we enter a year almost certain to be filled with challenges and changes.

Mark A. Kellner may be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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