WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Pope Francis' focus on the Catholic Church's pastoral role and his closeness to the poor and downtrodden during his first year in office has quickly positioned him as the people's pope. In his home region of Latin America, majorities in many countries -- including many non-Catholics -- say he has brought hope to the world's poor and believe he will change the Catholic Church for the better.
Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, became the first pontiff from the Americas last March. A median of 70% of adults surveyed across 18 countries in Latin America in 2013 say Francis will bring positive changes to the Catholic Church, and another median of 68% of residents say he brings hope to the poor of the world. A smaller median of 59% believe the pope has inspired them to feel closer to the Catholic Church. While the pope appeals most to the median of 69% in the region who identify as Catholics, he has earned the admiration of many non-Catholics as well.
Pope Francis and Hope to the World's Poor
While the pope has surprised the world with a series of gestures, including washing the feet of prisoners and inviting homeless men to the Vatican, his devotion to the less fortunate has likely been less of a surprise in Latin America. In Argentina, where he is known for his assistance to the poor as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, 87% overall -- including 64% of non-Catholics -- believe Francis brings hope to the world's poor. But Francis carries this reputation even in less Catholic countries such as Uruguay, which has the smallest self-identified Catholic population in South America, according to Gallup's poll.
Latin Americans Confident Francis Will Change the Church
Most Latin Americans expect Francis will bring positive changes to the Catholic Church. These percentages are particularly high in Argentina (86%), Paraguay (82%), and Panama (80%), as well as in Brazil (80%) where Francis led a massive youth rally in 2013. In the past year, the pope has called for the church to stop focusing so heavily on homosexuality and abortion or contraception and to rebalance its efforts to pay more attention to the poor. The pontiff has also called for the Catholic Church to be more inclusive and to demonstrate respect for other faiths.
Catholicism has long been a source of identity and a unifying factor for many Latin Americans. In recent years, however, other faiths, particularly evangelical Christianity, have made inroads into the region. Pope Benedict attempted to rally the faithful in Latin America but with mixed or diminishing results. Will Pope Francis lead a revival of the Catholic Church in the region?
Latin America currently does not have a visible leader who inspires pride, unity, or greater social justice than the pope does. Despite notable advances in reducing poverty over the past decade, much of the region is still characterized by severe income inequality. Crime, drug trafficking, and politically motivated violence remain endemic problems, making personal safety a daily concern for many Latin Americans. Whether Pope Francis will become a positive influence by inspiring leaders and citizens to build more just, compassionate, and peaceful societies is yet to be seen. But for now, he seems to be inspiring the region to reinforce its Catholic identity and to take a fresh look at the church as one that brings hope back to the poor.
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Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted from July to December in each country. For results based on the total sample of national adults, margin of sampling error ranges from ±3.5 percentage points to ±5.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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