NEW YORK — Surveys have found that most Roman Catholics are head-over-heels in love with their new pope, and according to several of the faithful who turned out for Francis-led services this week in New York City, the surveys are absolutely right.
Everyone asked among the more than 2,000 people in attendance at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan for evening prayer (Vespers) on Thursday all said the same thing in a variety of ways: Pope Francis is different; he's a man of the people; he's humble; he's hands-on.
The sentiment was expressed by both older and younger generations of Roman Catholics.
The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute reported in August that its surveys found that an "overwhelming majority of Catholics have a favorable view of Pope Francis (90 percent)," while 67 percent of Americans in general view the pontiff favorably.
The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank based in Washington, D.C., reported on their survey's findings in March that "nine-in-10 U.S. Catholics now say they have a favorable view of Francis, including nearly six-in-10 who have a 'very favorable' view."
The survey considered how opinion of Francis has evolved since he became leader of the world's more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in 2013 (it increased from 57 to 70 percent).
Pew also noted that Francis's favorability rating was nearly as high as that of John Paul II during his tenure, which ended in 2005, and that it far exceeded favorability of his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI.
The surveys' findings were backed up by a variety of guests who participated in the evening prayer at St. Patrick's Cathedral Thursday night.
Here is what some of the Catholic faithful think of the pontiff.
Twenty-something Fransheska, traveled from Washington Heights in upper Manhattan with her mother, Egla, to attend the service.
Although Fransheska said attending Vespers was pretty much her mother's idea and that she has not been paying as much attention to Francis as perhaps others have, she did know that she liked the pope.
"He's different. He's more people-friendly. He'd rather be with the people than just on the sidelines. He's a change from what we've usually seen in the church," said Fransheska, who did not provide her last name.
Egla, who has lived in New York City for 30 years, agreed with her daughter. The woman, appearing to be in her 60s, wore a red velvet top to compliment her megawatt smile.
"Just like my daughter said. It's a new vision of faith basically with him. Definitely," said Egla, who was barely able to conceal her excitement over seeing the pope in person.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited New York City in 2008, she did not "have the chance," to see him. "Oh my God, it's a blessing," she said of having an audience with Francis. "It's a blessing to be here today."
Joseph Sozio, who, along with his wife and a little over a dozen other people, had slightly elevated seats at the front of St. Patrick's just steps from the altar where the pontiff stood to lead prayers and deliver his homily.
Asked why he was at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Sozio kept it simple and direct: "To see the pope."
"It's a once in a lifetime experience," he added, not discounting the Pope Benedict-led Mass at Yankee Stadium he attended seven years prior. But Benedict is no Francis, as Sozio seemed to indicate.
"He's excellent," said Sozio, in his 40s and from Westchester County. "He truly is the pope of the people, the common man. I was at the Vatican last summer and he sleeps in the same quarters where visiting bishops come. He doesn't sleep in the big palace, so to [speak]. He's in touch with everybody."
Laura Hagan, a seasoned and smartly-dressed Manhattanite who lives just blocks away from St. Patrick's, was exuberant to be sharing the same space with the pope.
"I think it's incredible. We don't have enough words to tell you how exciting, not only [to] us, but the whole world of (sic) this wonderful, humble, loving man. I feel very lucky, along with my husband, to be privileged to just be in the same cathedral with him, in the same place," said Hagan.
She also lauded the efforts of the New York Archdiocese in completing renovations on St. Patrick's Cathedral, literally, just in time for Francis's arrival.
Hagan concluded with just two words: "I'm elated."
Two brothers in their 20s also had a few words about Francis and found special significance in not only his visit to New York City, but also in his stop in Cuba days before.
Brian Letts, 26, from New Jersey, also sat in the slightly elevated section near the altar. He told The Christian Post he found the pope "really inspirational."
"When I was 5 years old, we saw John Paul II. It really moved us. This pope is really, he has this magnetism to him that really just draws us in," he added.
His brother, Daniel, his senior by just one year, shared that their family is Cuban-American and that he found the pope's recent trip to Cuba be personally meaningful.
"Our mother was born in Cuba, so honestly, the work that he's done to forge the relationship between our two countries coming together again is just so incredibly inspirational," Daniel said.
Frank Rizzo, from Redding, Connecticut, volunteered as one of the 30 or so honorary ushers who assisted guests during the service. Rizzo said that volunteering his time as an honorary usher on special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter or when there is a high-profile guest in town, was essentially a family tradition.
He said that not only were some of his brothers honorary ushers, but that his father and grandfather volunteered during their time as well.
"I think it's great. He's somewhat of a breath of fresh air in the Catholic church," Rizzo, 45, told CP.
During service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Pope Francis took the time to express solidarity with Muslims around the world affected by the stampede that killed more than 700 worshippers participating in the Hajj, or pilgrimage on Sept. 24 in Islam's holy city of Mecca. Francis said that "at this moment, I give assurances of my prayers" and added, "I united myself with you all [in] prayer to Almighty God, [the] all merciful."
Francis also expressed in his homily his "love" for and "gratitude" to the women of the church, saying: "In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the church be without you?
"Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say 'thank you,' a big thank you … and to tell you that I love you very much."
In addition to leading Evening Prayer at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Francis was scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly, meet with 9/11 families and lead an inter-religious ceremony at Ground Zero, visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, lead Mass at Madison Square Garden, and drive through and greet people at Central Park.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, overseeing the pontiff's stateside visit, reports that Francis is the fourth pope to travel to the U.S. and that his "visit will be the tenth time a pope has made an apostolic journey" to the U.S.
The Sept. 22-27 trip to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where was to attend the 2015 World Meeting of Families, marks Francis' first-ever visit to the U.S. since the 78-year-old Argentinian Jesuit was chosen as pope in 2013. His trip to the U.S. was preceded by a three-day visit to Cuba where he met with President Raul Castro and local families. Learn more about the papal visit at uspapalvisit.org.