By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

The lingering “Francis Effect” drew several dozen members of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold,  recently to hear noted papal expert Dr. Christopher Bellitto expound on the Pope's early fall visit to the United States.

As usual with Dr. Bellitto, those who came looking for Francis also got a hearty dose of wide-ranging, historical context on his predecessors – from the beginning of the Church to Popes Benedict and the now St. John Paul II.

This overall context was exactly why Mike Grom made a point of attending the program created especially for “Being Catholic” a parish ministry which presents talks by experts on the third Wednesday of every month on every aspect of faith.

Grom, who is in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at the parish, describes himself as coming from a non-denominational Christian background. Grom sees the “Being Catholic” program as one more way to enhance his knowledge of the faith.

Especially in light of Pope Francis' recent visit, Grom found Bellitto's presentation enlightening. “It was very good to hear an intellectual who follows the pope so closely.”

Dr. Christopher Bellitto, an associate professor of history at Kean University, Union, is a frequent public speaker and media commentator on Church history and contemporary Catholicism, and his insights on the papacy have often appeared in such publications as The New York Times and the Washington Post. The St. Robert Bellarmine parishioner has appeared on The History Channel, CNN, MSNBC, PBS' News Hour, National Public Radio and other radio and TV stations.

He was a frequent media commentator following the death of St. John Paul II and the papal conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. His insights were frequently shared in newspapers and television during the resignation of Benedict and the conclave that elected Francis.

Bellitto walked his listeners back in time to the earliest days of the papacy and then offered a clear trail of how the papacy evolved into the institution we know today.

Among the details he said – how Rome's highly developed network of roads helped the Apostles reach scattered communities all over the empire. He also spoke about the fact that despite great challenges and difficulties and an assortment of “odd characters,” over the two millenniums of the Church, “the papacy endures.”

Bringing the journey into the 20th and 21st centuries, he shared glimpses of Francis' immediate predecessors – including St. John XXIII and Paul VI, noting that the later really set the framework for the pilgrim popes we have come to expect.

“He was the first pope to leave the Holy Land since Peter,” said Bellitto. “He was the first pope to bring the center (of the papacy) to the periphery. What Francis is doing (with his travels) has its roots in Paul.”

Focusing part of the program on the uniquely human aspects of Francis' personality, he drew attention to the fact that he obviously enjoys huge Masses, head dresses and personal contact with as many people as possible. He spoke of Francis' “brilliant move” in the simultaneous canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. He also noted the way his trip to the United States reflected his commitment to “stop polarization. He takes his role as a bridge builder very seriously,” Bellitto said, noting that the very ancient papal title “pontifex” – is Latin for bridge builder.

The professor and Msgr. Sam A. Sirianni, pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine, who joined in the discussion, agreed that in order to keep the momentum of the Francis Effect going, “boots on the ground” everyone – from the local Church and Catholics in general -- needs to do their part, evangelizing, reaching out to encourage people to participate and “bringing the periphery into the center.”

Noting that he has been to previous presentations by Dr. Bellitto, Paul Hessler said he enjoys the format and finds them to always be “entertaining because he just so upbeat and informative.”

“When he and Msgr. Sirianni take questions together, they offer two different views on the same track and gives you a broad picture,” said Hessler.

For information on upcoming monthly “Being Catholic” programs, go to