In less than a year, a little-known Argentine has shot to fame as Pope Francis, a media superstar who, so the story goes, is bringing almost revolutionary newness to an ancient church while re-energizing a faith demoralized by scandal and malaise.
The Advocate, an American publication for gays, and Time magazine chose the new pontiff as their 2013 Person of the Year, the latter declaring that Francis is "poised to transform a place that measures change by the century."
It is not surprising that the March 13 election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio seemed to signal a fresh direction for Catholicism — the then-76-year-old was the first non-European pope in centuries and the first Jesuit and New World cleric ever to become leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. And he was the first to take the name Francis, after the famed St. Francis of Assisi, a peacemaker, lover of animals and servant to the poor.
Since that first puff of white smoke came spiraling out of St. Peter’s, Catholics and others have marveled with each new story of the Holy Father’s humility — taking the bus back to his apartment rather than the usual Mercedes, paying his own hotel bill, refusing to move into the luxurious papal apartments, washing the feet of female inmates and cradling a disfigured man’s face in his hands.
"Every part of his actions at the moment of his election indicated that this man was one of great humility," says Debra L. Adams, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Holladay. "His first words were, ‘Pray for me,’ and when he described himself, he said, ‘I am a sinner.’ "
There’s the pope’s famous off-the-cuff answer to reporters on the plane coming back from a wildly successful World Youth Day in Rio: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
And Francis’ apostolic exhortation, called "The Joy of the Gospel," expresses his critique of economic inequality, free-market capitalism and neglect of the needy. "How can it be," he laments, "that it is not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"
The new pope’s "break from his immediate predecessors —John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Benedict XVI, the traditionalist German theologian who stepped down from the papacy [last] February — is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the church centered on an identification with the poor," writes James Carroll in The New Yorker. "From this vision, theological and organizational innovations flow. The move from rule by nonnegotiable imperatives to leadership by invitation and welcome is as fundamental to the meaning of the faith as any dogma."
In other words, Francis’ style could lead to substantive changes.
Some Catholics resist such oversimplification, wincing whenever the secular media suggest that Francis is remaking the church.
The new pope "is profoundly unique," says the Rev. John Norman, priest at St. Vincent, "and also very similar to his predecessors."
John Paul II, for example, seemed so unlike others when he was elected in 1978, coming from Poland as the first non-Italian in centuries — and with such a charismatic personality. And Benedict was gentler and more conciliatory than his critics imagined him to be.
"People say this pope is so different, but different from what?" Norman asks. "Different from their image of a pope."
So what’s new? » Like other popes, Francis is an accomplished scholar, leader and theologian, but he also has had "incredible international experience," Norman says. "He’s Italian by heritage, so an immigrant to Argentina."
And he seems so "approachable," the Utah priest says. "He seems not to be the least bit hesitant about anything. He seems to be in all kinds of places but constantly present."
The new pope, Norman says, "has a face that communicates concern."
Francis’ papacy is "more people-oriented" than previous pontiffs, explains the Rev. Lourduraj G. Gally, who ministers at St. Patrick Catholic Church, an ethnically diverse parish in west Salt Lake City. "He is focused more on the mercy of God and forgiveness."
Gally points to the pope’s "who am I to judge?" quote as indicative of Francis’ overall approach.
"If someone is gay and honestly searching for God," says the priest, who is originally from India, "the pope doesn’t condemn him, just tries to understand him. That’s a great way to approach the issue."
Francis is "one of us," says Rosemary Baron, a hospital chaplain in Salt Lake City. "He is accessible with his touching the people, kissing the babies, washing the feet. He wears shoes like we wear, drives cars like we drive, lives in a house like we do. Isn’t this what Jesus did? He walks the talk, and we all love him for it."Next Page >
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