As Pope Francis prepares to visit the US next month for the first time, PR pros with expertise in faith-based communications say his arrival comes at a critical time for the Catholic Church, which has been accused of covering up and failing to help prevent sexual abuse of children by clergy over several decades.
They say the church has also lost its relevance over the years for many because some of its values are seen as too in conflict with those of a changing society.
The US is home to more Christians than any other country in the world at 173 million, but the number of Americans who identify themselves with the religion has been steadily dwindling.
This year, the Pew Research Center concluded from a 2014 survey that the Catholic Church has lost between roughly 3 million and 8 million followers since 2007, when it conducted an almost identical large-scale survey.
In fact, the Catholic Church loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other religious faith, according to the research. For every person who converts to Catholicism, it found more than six followers leave the church.
The survey of more than 35,000 Americans also revealed that "while the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages." The decrease is also occurring across all regions of the US and many ethnic groups including Caucasians, blacks and Latinos.
Pope Francis – who has been championed by media outlets such as Time for his decision to live frugally, make himself accessible to the general public, and for his nonjudgemental views on contentious church issues – hopes to reverse that slide when he makes his visit to the US next month.
His six-day, three-city itinerary includes an address to the UN General Assembly in New York, an address before a joint session of Congress in Washington, and an outdoor mass in Philadelphia on September 27 to conclude the World Meeting of Families, which is expected to be attended by more than a million people.
It is a "daunting challenge" for Francis, PR pros say, especially at a time when most people are losing their faith in religious leaders.
"We are in a unique and exciting time here in the US when it comes to faith and religion – the SCOTUS decision on homosexual marriage and constant church scandals," says Hunter Frederick, president, Frederick & Associates, a crisis management firm that has recently helped pastors and churches communicate around the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage with their congregations in a biblical, yet loving way.
He says it is particularly important for Pope Francis to hit the right notes on this visit, "being that this is his first tour in the US."
"He only gets one shot at a first impression and Francis has to show his loyalty and willingness to address issues within the US Catholic Church specifically," Frederick adds. "The bigger churches are on his list of places to visit but going to smaller, lesser known ones would also show his willingness to help all churches and not just the bigger ones that drive a lot of money."
Frederick believes that Francis is uniquely qualified to help rebuild the US Catholic Church.
"With his adoption of social media and sense of humor, he is really becoming the people’s pope," Frederick adds. "Even his stance on homosexual marriage has made him loved by those that don’t share his faith. He really has bridged the gap between religious and secular worlds."
Pope Francis has said he could see the Catholic Church tolerate some forms of same-sex civil unions – if not outright marriage, and in an interview last summer said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
Claudia Gioia, CEO and president, Latin America, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says the Pope has endeared himself by focusing on broader messages about compassion and acceptance. "His life mission has been marked on against poverty and struggle against discrimination."
"He grew into the person he is today by walking slums, helping homeless people in Buenos Aires, and reaching out to the poor," she notes.
This narrative has served him well in the US, Gioia explains. She cites a recent study, which found some people who describe themselves as agnostic or atheist hold Pope Francis in high esteem, "a seemingly unprecedented reputation for previous popes."
On his US tour, Gioia suspects he will advocate for the eradication of discrimination, "possibly one of the most appealing messages he could use in the US" because of racial and social tensions in many parts of the country.
"Global warming is another topic that will make its way into his messaging platform during his visit," she adds.
Gioia says the fact he is from Argentina could also help the Catholic Church in the US, given the large Latino and Hispanic population, many of who have roots in Catholicism.
"The Spanish language is the most important element that will help Pope Francis connect with the Latino community. Latinos or US Hispanics adults speak on relevant matters of the heart in their mother tongue," she notes.
"If you look at his Twitter numbers, Pope Francis has 6.88 million followers on his Twitter English platform as opposed to around 9.67 million in Spanish, a stark difference that could be an indicator of the connection he holds with the Latino community."
John Gogarty, EVP, Coyne, concurs. "As the country shifts on societal issues, he doesn’t want to be seen as polarizing," he adds. But Gogarty says Pope Francis has proven to be one of the most PR savvy popes the Church has had.
Instead of talking specifically about such issues as same-sex unions, contraception, and remarriage in black-and-white terms, he thinks Pope Francis will use the US tour – whether he is before Congress or the UN – to launch new charitable programs for the poor and the environment.
"If he gets more people involved in Catholic charities and programs – instead of just encouraging more people to go to mass – that would be just as beneficial to the Church in the long run," notes Gogarty. "He will be here, not just to embrace Catholics, but to advocate for the poor. That message will be paramount to the success of his tour."
"The Catholic Church has a lot of work to do, but his visit can only bring about a positive pay-off," he predicts.