by Meg Storm

Can Pope Francis “save” the Catholic Church in the way the American media has endlessly discussed these last several weeks? The answer, quite simply, is no. By all accounts Francis is as conservative as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Yesterday, TheBlaze’s Billy Hallowell reported that “on contraceptives and gay marriage, he has, in the past, taken strict, conservative stances.”

But can Pope Francis work to ensure the Catholic Church remains vibrant and relevant for years to come? The answer, quite simply, is a resounding yes. And, as a 22-year-old practicing Catholic and staunch conservative, this is a time of great hope and prayer.

It is undeniable that the state of Catholicism in the United States is troubled. From the closing of Catholic schools around the country due to of a lack of funding, to the sex-abuse scandal that has rightfully plagued the Church for the last decade, to views on homosexuality and contraception that are considered antiquated and intolerant in the more liberal society we now inhabit, the Church faces more than its fair share of challenges both in the U.S. and abroad.

National Geographic compiled remarkable data that shows just how much the demographics of the Catholic Church have changed over the past century. What was once a religion dominated by Europeans, is now an institution that finds its greatest support in Latin America and Africa.

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Alexander Stegmail, Maggie Smith, NGM Staff

On one hand, this is a major victory for not only Catholics, but Christianity as a whole. Missions to war-torn, impoverished, and developing nations across Africa and South America have yielded tremendous results for the faith. As of 2010, 13 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Catholics reside in Brazil and 9 percent in Mexico. African nations have also seen tremendous gains. On the other hand, France, which in 1900 had the largest population of Catholics at 15 percent, now accounts for less than 5 percent of the Church’s followers. Similar trends can be found in Spain, Poland, and Italy.

Ironically, the United States has remained relatively stable over the years, hovering at around 7 percent of the world’s Catholic population since 1970. But according to the 2010 U.S. Religious Census: Religious Congregations & Membership Study, there are 58,934,906 Catholics in the United States down 5 percent from the 2000 report. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest growing Catholic population in the U.S. is in the Hispanic community, with a February Gallup poll finding 54 percent of Hispanics identify as Catholic (this number, however, is down 4 percent from 2008).

While demographics and numbers certainly do not tell the whole story, the election of a Pope from a Latin American country is significant and signals a shift (however slight) in the Catholic Church. Putting issues like contraception and homosexuality aside, common arguments against the Church suggest that there is too large a gap between the Church hierarchy and the laity.

While moral guidance certainly comes from the Bible, declining Church attendance seems to corroborate the idea that people are less motivated by the Vatican and more motivated by their own conscious and conviction. In an article for the German Deutsche Welle, “US Catholicism at a crossroad,” author William D’Antoni explained that, especially in America, a culture of individualism works against the traditional structure of the Church. “It is this idea of personal autonomy. You are responsible for your behavior. There is this basic cultural norm that goes way back to the early pilgrims and protestant leaders of the society. Catholics have taken that and modified it around the conscience idea,” D’Antonti said.

While those who regularly attend mass may find themselves inspired by the homily of a beloved parish priest, the Catholic Church in the U.S. fails to reach out to those who have been alienated or gone astray. While persistent and effective missions throughout Latin America and Africa have brought a substantial number of people to the faith, the Church seldom mobilizes its forces in the United States and Europe in the same way, perhaps accounting for the declining rates in those regions.

I am not sure that this pope, or any pope for that matter, can right the ship and reengage those who have left the faith. Furthermore, there will be a tremendous debate, especially among conservatives, about the ramifications of having a Jesuit pope. I for one take pause at some of the comments Pope Francis has made in the past regarding economic inequality and social justice. Yet I find myself cautiously optimistic that in a world grappling with the realities of how to provide for the least among us, Pope Francis has the ability to profoundly redefine the role of the Church in this problem.

In the United States alone, the government has overtaken churches as the primary source of welfare and charity. We have become more dependent on the government because far too often people find themselves with no other option. But Pope Francis, with his firsthand experience and documented devotion to the poor, could help to reverse this trend. Reminding Catholics near and far of the good work done by Catholic charities and missions throughout history, may revitalize a community of people who feel disheartened by a problem that seems too large for any one person to solve. Francis alone cannot effect such change, but in harmony with the Catholic cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity around the world, the Church can once again emerge as a global leader of charity and serving the needs of the poor.

It is no secret the Catholic Church finds itself at a crossroad but with the leadership and experience Pope Francis appears to offer, this is a historical moment not just for the Church but for the role of religion more broadly. Moreover, this is an especially exciting time to be a Catholic.