Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Taking stock of the 'Pope Francis effect' in Los Angeles

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At the Cotter Church Supplies store near downtown Los Angeles, 26-year-old Danielle Decea tucked a few things into her shopping basket as she browsed the aisles.

“Just prayer books, candles, just little knickknacks here and there," said Decea, a freelance illustrator from Thousand Oaks. "Just to aid the spiritual life. Just like a few tools, you know, to take along the way.”
 
Decea grew up Catholic, but lost interest in the church years ago. Until recently, when she came back – in part, she said, because of Pope Francis.
 
“When I found out about him, I was really encouraged, and that is when the wheels started turning for me," she said. "I love his emphasis on social justice, the central gospel message with the poor, so that influenced me a lot."

RELATED: Take Two: Popularity of Pope Francis revives interest in his saintly namesake

There were other factors that led Decea back to the flock, but she says the new Pope was definitely an influence.
 
In his first year as Pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s of Buenos Aires, Argentina has shaken up the church - and the faithful - with his outreach to the poor and his acceptance of communities who haven't typically been embraced by church leadership.

He's reached out to the homeless and to prison inmates. He's celebrated Mass on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where migrants arrive illegally on rickety boats from North Africa. He's voiced compassion for Catholics who have suffered divorces. He remarked, famously, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about his attitude toward gay priests.

The pope's down-to-earth demeanor and tolerant attitude has won him fans among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, part of what media has dubbed the "Pope Francis effect."
 
At Cotter’s, a religious supplies store that's been in business since 1948, the Pope Francis effect has been felt not only in sales of his portraits and books – something that typically happens when there’s a new Pope – but in sales of items related to his equally humble namesake.
 
“This new Pope has revived an interest in St. Francis, because he is living very much by the ideals of St. Francis," said Mike Cotter, whose family owns the business, a chain of four stores catering to churches and the general public. "And people have an interest more in in St. Francis now that the Pope has not only taken that name, but has emphasized his values.”
 
Customers have been buying more St. Francis-related items like statuettes, crosses, even St. Francis medals for their pets, as St. Francis is considered the patron saint of animals.
 
An initial spike in Pope Francis portraits – mostly for churches - has died down by now, but Cotter says books written by or related to Pope Francis remain pretty strong sellers, too.
 
Among the non-Catholics won over by Pope Francis is Jenny Mueller, a 29-year-old set decoration shopper who was at Cotter's this week on business, buying items to film a church scene for a TV show.  
 
Mueller grew up with a Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother. She doesn't consider herself a Catholic. Still, she admits she's a fan of the new Pope – she calls him the “popiest” of recent pontiffs.
 
“I just think that this Pope speaks to what God is all about, just coming out and being with the people and living with the people, and just accepting everyone as they are," Mueller explains. "It's really, really enlightening, and really hopeful."

It's too soon to know how deep the Pope Francis effect will go in terms of whether Francis will change church policies, or draw more onetime Catholics like Decea back to the flock.

But in Los Angeles, labor activists impressed with his attention to income inequality are circulating a petition to draw him to Los Angeles next year when he visits the United States, hoping he'll have an effect on the local dialogue on poverty.

In a statement, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo described Los Angeles as "one of the nation's epicenters of working families living in poverty" meriting Pope Francis' attention. 

"There is no one on the world stage that would be more fitting than Pope Francis to shine a light on the poverty that is plaguing our communities," she said.

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