Does ‘Pope Francis effect’ mean a Catholic growth trend?

The best journalists report what they know — and what they don’t.

Given the flurry of positive press for Pope Francis in 2013, a journalist easily could produce a three-anecdotes-make-a-trend story on how the new pope with a sky-high approval rating has brought a numerical resurgence to the Roman Catholic Church.

But Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazetteone of our favorite Godbeat pros — didn’t do that. He stuck to the facts (thank you, ma’am) in a recent story on Francis’ impact on the church:

It’s been called the “Pope Francis effect.”

Priests locally and internationally say they’re seeing a bump in interest in the church through the pope.

But while there are anecdotes of people joining or returning to the church under the influence of Francis, there’s no proof yet that such anecdotes add up to a broad trend.

Pope Francis’ name and @pontifex Twitter handle have become some of the most searched terms on the Internet. The pontiff has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year and he enjoys high popularity in polls — rated favorably by four in five U.S. Catholics and more than half the American general public, according to the Pew Research Center. Italian priests tell researchers they see a rise in Mass attendance.

But since Francis became pope, there is no measurable increase in Americans either identifying themselves as Catholic (around 22 percent) or in reporting they’re attending Mass more frequently (with about 40 percent continuing to say they attend weekly), according to Pew.

But isn’t it a little early to see fluctuations in such statistics, you ask? Exactly.

Keep reading:

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JFK’s strong Catholic ties and the speech he DIDN’T give

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Ten years ago, while working in the Dallas bureau of The Associated Press, I wrote a national package of stories commemorating the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

As the nation paused today — the 50th anniversary — to remember Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, I wondered if any enterprising journalist might produce a compelling religion angle.

Enter Godbeat pro Peter Smith, formerly of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a favorite of your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

I say formerly because Smith recently left the Courier-Journal to take over the vacant religion writer post at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As we noted back in September, longtime Post-Gazette journalist Ann Rodgers“Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news” — stepped down to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Peter told me he’s still getting settled in Pittsburgh, but that would be difficult to tell based on the quality religion stories he already has produced, including the one on JFK:

They stand among the most eloquent words that John F. Kennedy never said. Instead, they exist in writing only — forming the speech Kennedy was scheduled to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas to influential business and research leaders early in the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy was assassinated en route to the gathering, and the words hovered in obscurity amid the panic and devastation that followed.

But over the years, people have taken a fresh look at the Trade Mart speech. The words have inspired a tribute book, choral works and a video tribute in Dallas. They’ve inspired legislation — and litigation — in Kentucky.

For those who continue to ruminate on Kennedy’s truncated legacy, the words have become something of an unintentional last will and testament — a soaring call for progress in space exploration, civil rights, national security, foreign aid and even in critical thinking.

And it quoted freely from the Bible, invoking broad religious sentiments that may seem surprising coming from Kennedy. The nation’s only Roman Catholic president is better known for proclaiming a strict separation of church and state during the 1960 presidential campaign, seeking to allay fears that he would take orders from the Vatican.

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Faith, fear and the Holocaust

Back in March, this title on a New York Times news analysis grabbed my attention:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking

I found the article itself fascinating, but the headline struck me as more suited for a New York tabloid than the Old Gray Lady. I mean, I’m not sure how the systematic killing of millions of Jews could be any more shocking.

While no expert on the atrocities that occurred, I was blessed in 2004 to write an in-depth Associated Press story about the children of two Holocaust survivors finding each other — and finding answers. That piece remains one of the most memorable I have had the privilege of writing, and I remain enthralled by survivors’ stories.

I want to pull one such story, published a few weeks ago, out of my GetReligion guilt file. It’s a front-page feature by one of our favorite Godbeat pros, Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

This is one of those cases where I wish GetReligion had a simple template for posting links and screaming, “READ THIS!!!”

The top of the story:

As a Jew living in neutral Switzerland in October 1942, John Rothschild took the extraordinary risk of walking into an internment camp in Nazi-dominated France — unnerved but undeterred by the ominous closing of the gate behind him.

He arranged to speak to the French camp commander, part of the right-wing puppet government of France that was shipping Jews by the trainload north to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Rothschild recalls placing a package of Swiss cigars on the commander’s desk, along with the business card of a helpful local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. As Rothschild introduced himself, the commander said, “Oh, for the Swiss I would take the moon down from the sky.”

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that much. Let my fiancée go,’ ” Rothschild recalled.

His fiancée, Renee, was on a list to be deported to Auschwitz. The commander told Rothschild to return in two days for his decision.

In the meantime, Rothschild sought Renee out in the camp.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Renee Rothschild recalled in a recent interview with the couple more than 70 years later in Louisville, where they now live.

OK, you say, but what’s the news angle?

Glad you asked:

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