- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

OWATONNA, Minn. (AP) - TIME magazine named him “Person of the Year” for 2013.

He’s also graced the cover of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and even The Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine.

And he has more 3.7 million followers on Twitter.

Those are credentials that a presidential candidate would envy, a rock star would crave. But they belong to Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church and, if you believe some media reports, the biggest thing to happen to the church in years.

But on the eve of the anniversary of Francis’ election as pope, local priests are saying that the real difference between the Holy Father and his predecessors has been more in terms of form, not content, or style, not substance.

“Francis is less studied, more spontaneous (than the popes who preceded him). He has his own style,” said the Rev. Edward McGrath, the priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Owatonna. “But in terms of substance, there’s no difference. .For the Holy Father, it’s not a change in substance, but a change in emphasis.”

But has that change in emphasis, that change in style, meant a difference for the church in the past year?

Almost immediately after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, who retired, people began to notice the difference. In fact, his election itself marked a shift. He was the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside of Europe in more than a millennium. He was the first pope to choose the name “Francis,” a name that evokes the memory of both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order of which the pope is a member.

Then there have been his actions since he became pope - hugged a man who was covered with tumors, washed the feet of Muslim prisoners and chose less elaborate vestments, including shoes, than Pope Benedict before him. And, of course, he lives in a simple room in the Vatican rather than the more elaborate papal apartment.

“We’re all different,” said the Rev. John Sauer, the priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Owatonna.

Sauer noted that he, too, has followed other priests in other parishes and that he has been different than his predecessors. Popes have similar differences.

“Each pope has his own gifts,” Sauer said. “For Pope Francis, that’s mercy and being a pastor. That’s what he knows.”

And, Sauer added, that’s what the pope is doing now - being a pastor.

“Only on a grander scale,” he said.

McGrath went further, saying that much of the perceived differences between Francis and his predecessors have been the result of the way in which the media have reacted to Francis’ papacy.

“Much of the media wants to see a change in substance,” McGrath said.

But that difference in substance simply doesn’t exist.

What’s more, the priests say, there hasn’t been a real change for the parishioners of their parishes. Still, McGrath said that Pope Francis‘ papacy has had a “definite impact” on the church, mainly because of the man himself.

“He has caught the imagination of many folks because of his personality and affability,” McGrath said.

But that hasn’t meant a large change for the members of his parish.

Sauer agreed.

“Most people have their experience of the church through the local parish,” he said.

Because of that, Pope Francis‘ papacy, though inspiring to many, has had less impact than imagined.

And, in fact, that is what poll numbers are showing nationwide. Results of numerous polls by the Pew Research Center show that, by and large, Americans - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - generally like Pope Francis. He is rated favorably by 79 percent of Catholics in the United States and favorably by 58 percent of non-Catholic Americans.

However, Pew’s numbers do not show a corresponding resurgence in Catholicism in the country since Francis’ election. The number of those attending Mass has remained constant from before Francis’ election until after his election at about 39 percent. And Americans who identify themselves as Catholic also has remained constant since 2007 - six years - at about 22 percent.

In other words, there is no clear “Pope Francis Effect” among U.S. Catholics, according to Pew.

Which would seem to be fine with Pope Francis himself.

The Associated Press has reported that Pope Francis finds the hype that is increasingly surrounding him “offensive,” according to an interview published Wednesday.

Francis told Italian daily Corriere della Sera he doesn’t appreciate the myth-making that has seen him depicted as a “Superpope” (as an Italian street artist recently painted him) who sneaks out at night to feed the poor (as Italian newspapers have suggested).

“I don’t like ideological interpretations, this type of mythology of Pope Francis,” the pope told Corriere. “If I’m not mistaken, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there’s an aggression. Depicting the pope as a sort of Superman, a star, is offensive to me.

“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”

Sauer said that the pope is clearly showing what any pastor knows - that popularity is OK, but not to the extent that he becomes a cult figure.

“He’s afraid that people will build him into a mythic figure, and that’s not what we’re all about,” Sauer said.

Still, McGrath said, he believes that the pope will continue to be the sort of pastoral leader he’s always been, even though, for security reasons, he can’t have the same day-to-day contact he used to have with his parishioners.

“I think he’s still getting used to being pope, and getting a little frustrated,” McGrath said. “He’s used to being close to the people.”

Though he does not treat the pope as a mythic figure, Sauer acknowledges he does quote the pope a great deal.

“He has an interesting way of saying things,” he said.

In particular, he like what the pope said about the relationship between a pastor - from an ancient Latin word meaning “shepherd” - and his parishioners.

“He said that a pastor should smell like his sheep,” Sauer said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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