As Pope Francis prepares to visit Israel this spring, local Catholic clergy believe if he makes a trip to the United States it would be a spiritual "shot in the arm" for American Catholics.

The pontiff announced Sunday a three-day visit, May 24-26, to Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, becoming the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land after Paul VI's landmark visit in 1964. He will be making his second foreign trip since being elected pope early last year, having attended World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil last July.

While nothing formal is in the works -- yet -- Pope Francis will likely come to America, according to several area priests.

"I believe he is preparing other pastoral missions," said Rev. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, provincial superior of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. The Marians oversee the Shrine of the Divine Mercy on Eden Hill in Stockbridge.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it was the near future," added Monsignor Michael Shershanovich, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Pittsfield. "His visit would be a shot in the arm for us."

While a papal visit could be a boost for Catholicism in the U.S., the former Argentinean cardinal has had more of an immediate impact on the rest of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics.

Several international media outlets have reported a significant increase in Catholics attending church in Ireland, Italy, Great Britain and other countries, especially during the Christmas season, since Francis replaced Pope Benedict XVI in March. However, a recently released poll by the Pew Research Center found weekly Mass attendance in this country has remained steady at nearly 40 percent, compared to 2012, the last full year of Benedict's papacy.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis' statements urging everyone to be more mindful of social justice for the poor, disabled and others less fortunate have, and will continue to be, well received locally and across the nation, say area priests.

"He has impacted people everywhere, and Western Massachusetts, like all parts of the world, has benefited from his openness, gentleness, humanity, and spirituality," stated the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

"We're privileged to be learning from his example," McDonnell noted. "He's bringing people closer to God."

In addition, the pope's willingness to mingle among the masses, as he's done several times in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, would play well during a U.S. visit.

Two months ago in Rome, Chwalek was among a papal audience of 80,000 enthralled by being in the pope's presence.

"I could see the enthusiasm and love he has for all," he said. "He touches and speaks to everyone."

Pope Francis is also setting an example for all Catholic clergy to follow.

"I love seeing the pope with a smile on his face," said Shershanovich. "He's a reminder that priests serve the whole community."

To reach Dick Lindsay:

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,

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