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That may seem like a superficial issue of style. But with time, a compelling style can change perceptions. And in the church, as in politics, perception impacts reality.
Though nobody would argue that the tone from the Vatican hasn’t changed under Francis, few rules or policies have changed. And yet an overwhelming majority of people say they see a new direction from the Vatican: The Rome polling firm Opinioni said last week that three in four Italians liked the direction the church was taking, compared with less than 45 percent last year. A YouGov/HuffPost poll of U.S. Catholics released this week showed that more than four in five thought Francis had a positive effect on the church.
"Most people clearly believe the church has turned a corner, and if they believe that then that’s half the battle," said Maria Rossi, Opinioni’s co-director.
4. He practices what he preaches.
Most religious leaders speak about the need to help the poor, but Francis lives that message with gusto: In a recent trip to Sardinia, he met with unemployed youths and told them of his own family’s economic struggles upon emigrating from Italy to Argentina, and then he shared a meal with some of the island’s poorest residents.
This is a pope, after all, who has told his bishops to be shepherds "who smell like the sheep."
"I think it would be difficult for someone who didn’t know who Francis was to recognize him as the pope based on the things he says and does," said Alistair Sear, a retired church historian.
Mickens agreed: "You’d sometimes read about Pope Benedict taking a trip somewhere for four days and having 10 of his 12 meals there alone or with his personal secretary," he said. "But Francis loves being with people."
5. Francis is not Benedict.
This could hardly be more obvious, but Francis has a kind of credibility Benedict never had: Francis’ background, empathy and style allow him to cast himself as a champion of the poor and destitute in a way that would have seemed forced or perhaps insincere from Benedict, richly dressed and speaking from the balcony of his lavish Vatican apartment.
That allows Francis to communicate in ways that would have been impossible for his predecessor. At a general audience earlier this month, Francis compared the church to mothers: "All mothers have defects," the pope said. "But when we speak of our mother’s defects we cover them up — that’s how we love her."
Mickens laughed talking about that: "If Pope Benedict had ever uttered the words ‘cover up’ and ‘church’ in the same sentence, imagine the outcry!" he said.
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