From Pope Francis' decision to keep wearing his worn black shoes to his devotion to the poor, the new pontiff's tone of humility is stirring hopes among Catholics who believe a more open and accessible papacy will strengthen the church at its grassroots.
Years of scandals have taken a toll. "A number of people, because of those scandals, have left the church," said Msgr. Joseph Staudt, pastor of the Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue. That could begin to change, he said, if "they see this man making outreaches and saying this has been wrong. . . . Is he going to allow dialogue where dialogue wasn't allowed in the past?"
Such hopes underline the symbolic and institutional powers of the leader of a 1.2 billion-member church. Francis will be watched intensely for his response to the crisis of priest sexual abuse of children, Vatican mismanagement and corruption, and the decline in church attendance.
Papal decisions on the practice of faith can have a profound impact over the long term. A half-century ago, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to modernize the church and bring it closer to the laity with Masses conducted in vernacular languages, such as English and Spanish, instead of Latin only, and a broadened role for lay people.
But while the pope sits atop a hierarchy influenced by his appointments and initiatives, the church is experienced by individual Catholics at its base: through the life of a local parish community. Just as in politics, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of Fordham University's Department of Theology, "all religion is local, too. . . . The key seems to be in lay people's involvement."
Preliminary results of a Fordham study on why Catholics leave the church, he said, point to frustration over the pedophilia crisis, "the patriarchy of the clerical caste," and dissatisfaction with preaching and church services.
Those who decide to remain, whatever their opinions about the hierarchy, cite satisfaction with their local parish life: its rituals, preaching, music, social involvement and its reaching out to the larger community, Tilley said.
"It's the parish that's important," Tilley said.
Whatever direction Francis takes, much of parish life will go on as before.
"I'll be celebrating the Eucharist, I'll be performing baptisms," Staudt said. "People come to me for spiritual direction, somebody they can talk to God with."
But the pope makes a difference by his own religious example and his willingness to engage in dialogue with his flock, Staudt said.
"When the pope says or does something out of humility and is part of the people, I think people find it easier to be proud of being a Catholic," the monsignor said.
Looking to pope for 'unity' Ed Thompson Sr., 72, of Farmingdale, a retired KeySpan executive who has been active in church social outreach at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch, said lay Catholics look to the pope "for spiritual guidance; we look to him for unity, and we look to the pope for a sense of direction."
Tilley said that several of his colleagues at Fordham University have noticed an interesting development there: "A number of young students are impressed with this pope's humility and are willing to give the church another look. . . . His style is piquing their interest. He paid his own hotel bill, he rode a bus. . . . All the little things are noticed."
For now, Tilley said, the pope is enjoying a honeymoon period, but he is waiting to see what direction Francis will take. "Speak to me in 100 days," he said.
With little to no expectation that the new pope will consider women's ordination as priests, advocates are focusing on women's ordination as deacons, a role they held in the church before the 13th century that is now reserved for men, said Phyllis Zagano, an adjunct professor of religion at Hofstra University.
However the new pope deals with the issues of the day, he will command respect, she said. "This is like a bona fide holy man, and he gives people hope."
Having been in the presence of popes during their visits here, Zagano said, "There is something seriously magical about the office and being in the presence of it, no matter who he is."
Some see a need for a "new evangelization" to reconnect the church to lapsed Catholics in an increasingly secular world.
"For many lapsed Catholics, they feel the church has ceased to be relevant, and that's one of the issues the pope has to address," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit and editor-at-large of the Catholic weekly magazine America.
At the offices of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, Sister Margaret Smyth, the group's executive director, said the appointment of the first Latin American pope stirred great excitement.
More important, however, is his message of outreach.
"The thing is, if the church continues to be an evangelizing church, all things will fall into place," she said. "Evangelizing means reaching out and being a welcoming community. And that starts with us right here at this level."