No one doubts Pope Francis’ pulling power, whether in St Peter’s Square or on Instagram. But the fact that people want to see and hear Francis doesn’t tell you much about the impact he is having on them, or on the wider Church.

To assess the success of a pope, you have to first identify the major reform he seeks, and then ask how far he has achieved it.

For St. John Paul II, it was “Evangelical Catholicism”. After a decade of turbulence and disagreement, he wanted the Church to be more faithful to its traditions and to be braver and more energetic in its proclamation.

Pope Benedict XVI’s big idea was the New Evangelization. Faced with the dictatorship of relativism, he sought a Church that could better express the clarity, coherence and power of its teaching in ways credible to the modern mind.

For Francis – and the Latin-American Church as a whole – the plan is ‘Pastoral Conversion’. He wants the Church to be closer to people in the reality of their daily lives, to be simpler, poorer and more accessible, and better able to communicate God’s merciful love.

It is the plan laid out in his November 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and  in barnstorming speeches in Florence, at the close of last year’s synod, and recently in Mexico City.

Along with his teaching documents, each pope also has a privileged mechanism for bringing about that conversion.

For John Paul II, it was traveling and visibility on a global scale. For Benedict XVI, it was the synod for the New Evangelization and the Vatican office he created to implement it.

For Francis, it is the synod on the family (leading to its fruit, the forthcoming exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” ) and the Jubilee of Mercy.

Now that we are close to what is probably the halfway point of the Francis’ papacy, it is time to ask: How far has the Church been “pastorally converted”?

On one level, of course, it’s way too early to say. But there are three indications the strategy is making its mark.

Sheep-scented pastors

Francis has made very deliberate choices of bishops over the past three years in order to wean the Church away from political and ideological battles with elites, and focus it on the needs and concerns of ordinary people.

The effect has been especially striking when Francis has named a pastoral bishop to a key diocese previously inhabited by a culture warrior: Blase Cupich to Chicago, Matteo Zuppi to Bologna, or Carlos Osoro to Madrid, to take just a few examples.

Perhaps the strongest example of “pastoral conversion” has been Spain, where not just Madrid but Barcelona and a number of other significant dioceses have had Francis appointments.

Last month the Madrid-based journal Vida Nueva ran a long article headlined “The Conversion of the Spanish Bishops” that charted the metamorphosis. In it, one bishop describes how the Church in Spain is becoming “closer to the people, more ordinary, more merciful, more willing to dialogue,” and that episcopal collegiality — making decisions as a team — was now the order of the day.

Or, as the new Bishop of Vitoria, Spain, puts it: “A bishop can continue to be a parish priest.”

Opposition to mercy

On the principle that “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”, one sure sign that the Francis revolution is biting is in the anxiety it has provoked.

Francis’s evangelization strategy is essentially to foreground the mercy of God, because those who experience mercy in its many forms are opened to the truth of who God is. Put simply, mercy converts.

Conversely, when the Church lacks mercy in its proclamation – when it fails to show, for example, that it knows and understands the obstacles to marrying, or the pain of divorce – it lacks credibility and is rejected.

As Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, puts it in his book The Gaze of Mercy, what is at play here is no less than “the efficacy or the failure of the Church’s preaching.”

Yet for a number of bishops at the synods – notably east Europeans and Africans – mercy appears as a capitulation to relativism, one that dilutes the truth in order to make it more digestible.

Francis’s frustration with this attitude comes across in his book The Name of God is Mercy, when he describes “men who live attached to the letter of the law but who neglect love; men who only know how to close doors and draw boundaries”.

That’s why the apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, to be released on Friday, matters so much. If it succeeds in setting the tone for the Church’s pastoral strategy on family – a tone of mercy not judgement and condemnation – it could trigger a return to parishes on a large scale.

But if it is read as capitulation, it will fail. In that sense, the biggest tense of Francis’s pastoral conversion will be two years from now, looking back at the effect of the exhortation.

Missionary parishes

And if people do return, are the parishes ready to receive them? The path between people taking another look and staying is a long one, and much depends on what they find.

The Latin-American bishops gathered in Aparecida in 2007 had a clear plan for the pastoral conversion of parishes:

  • To offer a personal experience of Jesus Christ through personal testimony.
  • To create warm and welcoming communities.
  • To offer solid ongoing formation in Scripture and doctrine as a tools for spiritual growth.
  • To seek out those alienated from the Church.

Three years on, is that a description of their parish most Catholics would recognize?

Austen Ivereigh is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, and author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (now out in Picador paperback, with a new, updated epilogue).