Like many a life-altering event, there was no reason for this one to happen: Natasha Wilson was busy working on a Ph.D. in chemical and biochemical engineering and long adrift from her childhood religion — which in any event was African Methodist Episcopal, not Roman Catholic.
Yet in March 2013, after a lifetime of paying no attention to who happened to be pope, the Southwest Baltimore woman sensed "something obviously momentous" happening when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, emerged on a Vatican balcony with a shy smile, a humble demeanor and a new title: Pope Francis.
"I saw a video of him on a friend's cellphone, talking about unity," she said. "What he said spoke to my heart."
This past Easter, she completed her conversion to Catholicism, baptized into a church that many see transformed — if perhaps only in style and tone, rather than doctrine — by a pope who represents a break with the past.
This deep and direct connection the pope has made with people around the world, both in and out of the faith, has come to be known as "the Francis effect," and it will be on display as he begins a six-day visit to the United States on Tuesday.
"It is amazing how he has captured the imagination and the heart of so many, many people," said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori. "The pope's polling numbers would be the envy of anybody running for any office in any country. It's phenomenal the approval with which he has been met."
Francis' popularity is not unprecedented; a recent Pew Research Center survey showed his 90 percent favorability rating among Catholics approaching the 93 percent peaks Pope John Paul II reached twice during his 27-year papacy from 1978 to 2005. But the current pontiff seems more approachable than the beloved John Paul, living in a simple guesthouse rather than the lavish Apostolic Palace, and being driven around Rome in a Ford Focus.
Whether posing for selfies, inspiring Internet memes or issuing encyclicals on faith and climate change, Francis has put a modern face on his tradition-bound institution. For those disenchanted with Vatican rigidity on social and personal issues, Francis was preaching to the choir when he declared the church overly obsessed with contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will," he asked last year, "who am I to judge?
That willingness to engage rather than simply decree — and his personal charisma — have made him an important voice on any number of issues, from immigration to income inequality, that are coursing through the country he is visiting for the first time.
He arrives Tuesday at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County, where he will be welcomed by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives. The pontiff will visit the White House and address Congress, speak before the U.N. General Assembly and the church's World Meeting of Families, and celebrate Masses in Washington, New York and Philadelphia before returning to Rome on Sept. 27.
He is sure to draw throngs as he does every Wednesday when he celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Square. The outdoor service in Philadelphia on the final day of his U.S. trip is expected to draw a million or more people.
But what is the Francis effect on the ground level, on a church whose flock tends to be more liberal on social issues than its clerics, and that as an institution continues to deal with the fallout of the priest sex abuse scandals?
It might be too soon to quantify whether the pope's personal popularity will lure lapsed Catholics back to the church and into the pews on Sunday. The number of Americans who identify as former Catholics continues to rise as the number of regular churchgoers continues to drop, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
But beyond statistics, some say Francis has indeed had an impact.
"Let's say faithful Catholics are just delighted to have someone who puts a joyful and human face on the church for others," said the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of America magazine. "Many disaffected Catholics have told me — many, dozens — that they are coming back to the church because of him."
Martin — like Francis, a Jesuit priest — says the pope has "changed the conversation."
"Ten years ago, when someone saw you in a collar, the first thing that came to mind was the abuse crisis," Martin said. "Today, when someone sees you in a collar, people say to you, 'I love your pope.' That's a sea change."
Statistics show fewer entrants to the Catholic Church, whether it's infants being baptized or adults joining. But experts like the Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest and Georgetown University professor, say they believe Francis is starting to change that.
"I meet all sorts of people who are really moved by him, said Christiansen, the co-director of Georgetown's Program on the Church and the World. "The people coming in to the rite of initiation for adults seem to be especially affected by him. They think he's made the church a warm, welcoming place."
Francis' pronouncements have not been universally popular. After he released his encyclical on ecology and climate change in June, calling for aggressive government action and personal moral transformation to save the planet and humanity, his approval ratings dipped. A Gallup poll found political conservatives were upset that he had gone so far — and liberals were disappointed that he hadn't gone further.
In July, Carl Olson, editor of the conservative Catholic World Report, wrote that he agreed with some of the pope's critiques of society's ills, but also found a "weariness" among some Catholics over Francis' tone, which he described as sometimes "haranguing, harping, exhorting, lecturing" and "grating."
Francis' moral instruction about daily life — on the Christian duty to stop consuming so much, start spending more time with the poor and give up air conditioning for the sake of the environment — has left some feeling scolded.
"We have a pope who makes us, to put it bluntly, uncomfortable," Kurt Martens, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America, said in a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He asks questions about, 'What did you do for the poor?'"
While Francis addressed his encyclical to "all people of good will" and didn't single out the U.S. or any other country, his condemnation of the global economic system and the "unfettered" pursuit of profit was viewed as targeting America, whose immense wealth and influence shapes how the world does business.
Still, a Public Religion Research Institute survey last month found his popularity returning to higher levels overall as his first U.S. visit neared.
For Wilson, the UMBC student, her rite of initiation took her to St. Benedict Church on Wilkens Avenue, where she was baptized and attends daily Mass. She recently started working toward a master's degree in theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, continuing a journey of faith that began with Francis.
"He was the catalyst," she said.
The transition from Pope Benedict XVI, whose retirement paved the way for the selection of Pope Francis, has particular meaning for Sister Jeannine Gramick.
Gramick was censured by the Vatican in 1999, when she was a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore. Her crime: ministering to gays and lesbians in contradiction to "the Church's teaching regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts," according to an order signed by the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict.
But what a difference a change in the papacy makes. Gramick will attend a White House reception for Pope Francis on Wednesday. She and other members of the group she co-founded in 1977, the LGBT-friendly New Ways Ministry, based in Mount Rainier, also had VIP seats for a Mass at the Vatican earlier this year.
"People are feeling good about the church again," Gramick said. Francis "has bought about significant change in heart, in spirit."
After the censure, Gramick left the School Sisters for the Sisters of Loretto, an order that supported her outreach to gays in defiance of the Vatican.
"We got nine letters from the Vatican, saying I should not be doing this," she said, "but we haven't gotten any letters since Francis."
But for all the excitement surrounding the man at the top of the church, she cautions, most Catholics experience their faith at the local level, which in many cases remains under the control of a conservative old guard.
New Ways Ministry, for example, was not allowed to offer a gender-identity workshop at a Philadelphia church to coincide with the World Meeting of Families, the event that drew the papal visit. (The workshop will be held at a United Methodist church instead.)
"What we need is for the bishops to change," Gramick said. "The minds and hearts of the bishops need to change. The minds and hearts of the people are already there."
Gemma Hoskins, 62, of Relay is among those Catholics who were born, raised and married in the church, only to drift away. A retired educator with Baltimore County's public schools, Hoskins said she still believes in God, eternal life and other teachings, but grew increasingly "uncomfortable" with the church as an institution.
"I had a problem with how much money and riches the church owned while people were starving," Hoskins said. "Because of being a teacher, I saw a lot of needy families, and I was buying their school supplies for them, and yet I was asked to fill my envelope every Sunday."
Hoskins' discomfort grew to outrage after multiple allegations of sexual abuse were made against a priest who had been a chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School when she attended in the 1970s.
Two women sued the archdiocese and the priest, the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell, but the case was dismissed. After other former students came forward in 1994 with similar allegations against Maskell, he was stripped of his priestly powers by Cardinal William H. Keeler. Maskell denied the allegations before his death in 2001.
"Since all this has come to light, I've become disillusioned," Hoskins said. "It bothers me a lot."
Hoskins is among a group of activists pressing the archdiocese for greater transparency and punishment of priests who are charged with sexual abuse. She is waiting to see how Pope Francis acts on such demands.
In June, the pontiff created a church tribunal to judge bishops who cover up or ignore cases of child sex abuse by their priests. He has apologized for the church and asked victims for forgiveness.
"I am hopeful, but as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out," Hoskins said. "I really need to see proof that we have a hero in the Vatican."
Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, said she thought people would have expected more from Pope Francis by now.
"Since about a year in his papacy, I've been saying, 'Are we going to see any actual changes, or do we just have this new, kind, friendly tone?'" Moss said. "And we're going to say the same things, but we're going to say them with compassion? Which is an improvement, but certainly not a change."
Moss said the pope seems liberal in comparison to predecessors, but the church is not suddenly going to start ordaining women into the priesthood or performing same-sex marriages.
"I think people are mistaken to think that he's very liberal," she said.
For the Rev. Joshua Laws, 30, who was ordained in June, Pope Francis is exactly who the church needs at the moment.
Laws grew up in Fallston and attended Loyola Blakefield and St. Mary's Seminary before continuing his education in Rome. There he witnessed the papal transition, and celebrated a Mass with Pope Francis.
"We need his joy," said Laws. "He has such an immediate relationship with God; it is such a life force for him. It is such a source of joy for him, and he wants to share it with people."
Now back in his home state — he is an associate at Holy Family Catholic Community in Frederick County — Laws says he thinks about how much that joy is needed in Baltimore. He thinks of the soup kitchens where he volunteered as a youth, all the boarded-up houses and the unrest that erupted in April after the death of Freddie Gray.
"People have just forgotten that they matter. People forget there is a God that created everything and intimately cares about each person," Laws said.
"[Pope Francis] is able to communicate that love is the heart of it all," he said. "Love is at the center of our faith."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts and the Associated Press contributed to this article.