He's the most talked about man on the Internet. He's ramped up crowds at Sunday mass, extending lines at confession and sparking inquiries about the Catholic faith. Even donations and volunteering have gone up -- a result of his calls to help create a "church for the poor."
It's been dubbed the "Pope Francis effect," and its latest target is right here in Southern California, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Tearing a page out of the pontiff's playbook, the L.A. archdiocese is trying to fit into the changing digital landscape of the Roman Catholic Church, taking a step in the direction of its move to expand how it evangelizes the faith. Enter "Radiate L.A.": a website created by the L.A. archdiocese's Office of New Evangelization, which invites L.A.'s five million Catholics to share their hopes, dreams, and concerns with the goal of generating a deeper appreciation for their faith.
The site, introduced in late April at the celebration and vigil for the canonization of St. John Paul II, is tied to "The New Evangelization," the idea that all Catholics are called to share their faith. Users can share what their faith means to them by posting a their testimony online, through writing, audio, video or pictures.
"We all have a unique story of where we've come from, our struggles, who has helped us and how we've grown closer to Christ. Share your journey with us, whether you're a part of these regions or from anywhere in the world," the site says.
Radiate L.A. is a nod to a tech-savvy pope, according to Fr. Ed Benioff, who leads the Office of New Evangelization. Indeed, Francis has taken social media and communicating online to a new level, bolstering his image among the laity. Pope Benedict was the first to send papal tweets, of course, but let us not forget it was Francis who took the first ever papal "selfie." He granted indulgences -- time off in purgatory -- to Catholics who closely followed his Twitter (@pontifex) or other social media accounts during World Youth Day.
"The whole premise is taking Pope Francis' way to attract people," Benioff says. "Not through proselytizing, but through the media."
So how does the church evangelize an evangelization website? The old-fashioned way: going parish to parish and holding training sessions that frame the Web as the new Roman roads. Those the roads helped spread Christianity thousands of years ago; the new road is cyber space, Benioff notes. And because evangelization is the No. 1 pastoral priority for the Los Angeles archdiocese, he plans on visiting all 287 parishes in the diocese to share the importance of Radiate L.A.
The site is still young, and Benioff has only visited a handful of churches to spread the word. It's not yet clear whether Radiate L.A. has mobilized the masses.
The goal, Benioff adds, is to use social media and the website as a primary teaching tool -- a vehicle to reach the elusive millennial audience. Not a bad idea, considering the Pope's messages are retweeted an average of 22,000 times. That level of "user engagement" could give the church a much-needed boost in followers -- on Twitter and in real life.
Despite its near 1.2 billion adherents worldwide, the church is in a bit of a sticky situation. The number of Catholics around the globe, as well as members of the clergy, increased in 2011, but women in religious orders continued to decline, Vatican statistics show.
Not to mention, the church isn't doing so well with a key demographic in the U.S.: Latinos. While most Hispanics continue to belong to the Roman Catholic Church, according to May research from the Pew Research Center, a growing number of Hispanics are Protestant or unaffiliated with any religion. In this "digital age," the church is making a wise business move by setting itself up to be where the audience is.
The L.A. archdiocese isn't alone in its realization that moving from the pews to the smart phone is the best way to attract young Catholics -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops surveyed Catholics about their Internet usage last year.
"We know companies turn to the internet and social media and we are now on the cutting edge of that," Benniof says.