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'It was a sign': Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis

Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Francis waves as he is driven through a crowd in St. Peter's Square prior to the start of his weekly general audience on Wednesday.

Twenty million Americans consider themselves lapsed Catholics, but Pope Francis is convincing many to test the holy waters again with his bold gestures and common touch.

After years of disenchantment with the church's hierarchy and teachings, former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance under new leadership.

Dallas teacher Marilyn Rosa is one of them.

"He's being studied very closely," Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York said of Pope Francis, added that wherever he goes, priests want to know how the Pope will change the Catholic Church and what the implications will be. Cardinal Edward Egan is interviewed by TODAY's Lester Holt.

"It was a sign," Rosa, 57, said of the Argentine Jesuit's election as pontiff last month. "It was like a miracle."

Born and raised Catholic, Rosa attended parochial schools and had a church wedding for her first marriage. Over the years, she drifted away from the religion that had been such an integral part of her Puerto Rican family's life.

She questioned the relevance of church policies in the modern world. As a divorced woman, she felt cast out. The pedophile-priest scandals disgusted her.

Three years ago, she quit going to Mass and joined an evangelical church. But she didn't feel at home and she started to wonder how she could fill the void.

"The day the pope got elected, I turned on the TV and when I learned he was Latin, I went crazy at home," said Rosa.

"When they started to talk about how he lived by himself and didn't move into the archbishop's residence, how he took the bus to work, I said, 'I know God is talking to me. This is the man we needed.'"

On Palm Sunday, she and her second husband "reverted," attending services at Dallas' St. Pius X Catholic Church.

"It was packed. I had to stand up the whole time. But I felt so happy. It was like a revival," she said.

Ron Feldman

Father Peter Mussett of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, Colo., had five people tell him they were returning to the faith in a week because of Pope Francis.

Rosa has kept going to back to St. Pius, encouraged by what she's seen of the pope: from the simple white robe he wears to his rejection of the opulent papal apartment in favor of a spartan guest house.

"He's not letting himself be controlled by the rest of the church," Rosa said. "He's his own man."

Embrace of poor, emphasis on service
It's unknown how many others have joined Rosa around the country and globe and the vast majority of lapsed Catholics have not been enticed back. In the U.S., that's a huge pool of potential "new" members for an institution challenged by secularism and rival religions.

A 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated one in 10 adults in the U.S. was raised Catholic but has broken with the church. Its teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control and treatment of women were often cited as reasons.

Pope Francis hasn't given any hint of radical change on those issues, but his man-of-the-people persona is appealing to some of the unfaithful.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, which airs ads aimed at the lapsed, said his website traffic tripled the day of the election, adding several thousand visitors. It's been double ever since.

Some interest could stem from the hubbub surrounding the selection of any pontiff, but Peterson thinks Francis' "love for the poor and his humility is exciting people to a great extent."

Father Peter Mussett, pastor of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, which serves the University of Colorado at Boulder, agrees.

Marcos Brindicci / Reuters

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to lead the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. 

"I had five people in a week who were saying, 'Pope Francis has inspired me to return to my faith,'" he said. "It's pretty remarkable."

Brian O'Neill, 48, an Irish-American cop from Washington State, went to Catholic elementary school and a Jesuit high school but hasn't practiced since graduating from a secular college. He says that could change soon.

The Vatican's stance on social issues, along with the gilded lifestyle of some higher-ups previously drove O'Neill away. Francis' embrace of the poor and his background as a service-minded Jesuit might bring the father of two back.

"I was shocked and amazed when he started doing those things -- you know, 'No Popemobile for me,'" said O'Neill, who wrote a column for his local newspaper about possibly returning to Catholicism.

He said that while Francis' views on church teachings might still be far from his own, his election heralds change.

"When the church says that's the guy we're going to put on St. Peter's throne, that says enough about where the church wants to go," O'Neill said. "Will I go back? I'm planning on it -- if I can find a good service."

'He's another retro pope'
Last weekend, when he was formally installed as bishop of Rome, the pope used the opportunity to appeal to defectors, urging them to come back to the fold.

The News Tribune (Tacoma)

Brian O'Neill, a cop and father of two from Washington state, is a lapsed Catholic who is considering returning to the church because of Pope Francis.

It will take more than an invitation for Kathy Budreski, though. The 70-year-old left Catholicism after the abuse scandal and has been attending a Unitarian church in Cape Cod.

She was heartened to see the cardinals pick a pope from South America, and loved seeing Francis hug a little boy with cerebral palsy after Easter Mass but says he's not a progressive.

"He has a big heart and he loves the poor people, but he's not going to do anything to change the stance of the church on birth control and gay rights," she said.

"I don't see him as a mover and shaker. He has some wonderful qualities but he's another retro pope."

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Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

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Pope chooses simple residence over regal papal apartment

Full coverage of Pope Francis from NBC News