Pope Francis's personal appeal rebuilds his flock

The last Sunday before Christmas was cold and grey in Ottawa, with a storm bringing in snow and freezing rain.

Despite the weather, the hearty parishioners at St. Patrick's Basilica downtown filed in, stamping snow off their boots, for morning mass.

Outside the basilica, Glen Goss stopped to admire the nativity scene on the front lawn. He also paused to speak about a subject that's caught the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the new pope. Goss calls him an honest and true man.

"The previous pope was a significant intellectual and also a very holy man," Goss said.

"But Francis is more a people's man."

That sentiment is common among parishioners.

"He's more into the ordinary people and that's what we're striving for in our church," said Jovy Salas as she hurried in for mass.

Pope Francis has caused a stir within the church in Canada and around the world. Since becoming Pope in March, Francis hasn't changed church doctrine, but he has set a new tone at the Vatican.

He's rejected many of the luxuries that go with his title and focused instead on caring for the poor. He has railed against unbridled capitalism and invited homeless men to breakfast to celebrate his birthday.

Observers say the new style is making a difference in the way the church is perceived.

"What's most attractive about Francis is the simplicity and the authenticity of his own witness. People get it," said Prof. Catherine Clifford of St. Paul University in Ottawa.

"He's cutting through the jargon of things and really communicating the heart of the Gospel message in a very direct way."

Francis has become something of a media sensation. Time magazine named him its Person of the Year for 2013. So did The Advocate, a leading gay rights journal. Church leaders are welcoming the good publicity and positive headlines.

"I would say it certainly gives us some breathing room," said Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I think what is happening now generally is that there's a more kind of openness to the possibility that the church might have something to offer to this world. And I'm very glad that there's this openness, because I personally believe that the church has much to offer to this world," he said.

The question that remains is whether Francis can draw in Catholics who have drifted away. No figures are available for Canada, but some churches in Europe have reported a spike in attendance. For some, though, the numbers are secondary.

"I don't think it's just a question of how many people are at mass. You can have a church full of the standing dead," said Mary Jo Leddy, a theologian and lecturer at the University of Toronto.

"But it's the sense of joy and sense of life that you get in conversations among Catholics now. There's something fresh. There's something really exciting that's happening. And none of us know quite what it is. We're as surprised by this Pope as anybody. And maybe he's surprising himself."

The Catholic Church, of course, still faces significant challenges. They include a legacy of sexual abuse and coverup as well as doctrine and practices that critics say exclude women, gays and other members of society.

For now, the focus is on the new face of a new Pope. The fundamental change some are looking for may still be a long way off. Outside St. Patrick's Basilica, however, there's no mistaking a sense of optimism.

"I was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church and lots of times I found it very routine," said parishioner Rose Bechamp.

"But since Pope Francis has entered the picture, there is a new vibrancy," she added.

"If you came to church on Sunday, you would see for yourself."

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