If Pope Francis’ recent humanitarian statements and gestures are part of a public relations effort to repair the ailing image of the Catholic Church, it may be working. Researchers say more than half of Italian priests interviewed reported an increase in the number of people in the pews since the new pontiff was seated.

“Researcher Massimo Introvigne, a sociologist and head of Italy’s Centre for the Study of New Religions (Cesnur), found that 51% of 250 priests he interviewed reported a significant rise in church attendance since the election of the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in March,” The Guardian reports Sunday.

Introvigne said: “If we project those results nationally, and if only half the parishes and communities in Italy have been touched by the Francis effect, then we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people who are returning.”

A survey of 22 cathedrals in Britain also showed an increase there, with 65 percent of respondents saying they noticed a rise in attendance, Introvigne said. He first discovered evidence of a surge at Mass in a survey done soon after Francis became pope. Then he decided to conduct a more extensive poll, he said.

“It might have been attributable to the novelty of having a new pope and the emotions stirred by the resignation of pope Benedict. But after six months I got more or less the same result,” he said. Italy’s most senior clerics say the biggest increase is in attendance by long-lapsed Catholics, The Guardian reports.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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