The People's Pope

The first pope from Latin America has undeniable charisma

Pope Francis

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Humble from the start, when elected Supreme Pontiff on March 13, 2013, Jose Mario Bergoglio accepted his appointment "in a spirit of penance." While he has retained that modesty, he has also revealed himself to be a fearless yet highly personal leader willing to challenge the status quo and nudge the church to embrace—or at least consider—change.

The Man

Interviews, writings, and public appearances reveal a man who is by nature, thoughtful, compassionate, and authentic. As the first Jesuit to be elected Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis acknowledges that Ignatian spirituality (inspired by the founder of the religious order, Saint Ignatius Loyola) inspires his personal theology, which combines discernment with a missionary spirit. Indeed, Pope Francis could be accused of being a "contemplative in action." This spirit of thoughtful mission is what drives the pope's vocation and is serving him well as he shoulders a weighty inheritance.

The Wounds of the Church

In an interview with a fellow Jesuit, Antonio Spadaro, published in the journal America, the pope recognizes that all people have social and emotional maladies and wounds. He describes the church as a field hospital after battle—it must be physically close to the injured in order to best "heal wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful." Healing is the first priority; all else can wait, because "It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else."

Healing comes in the form of a simple spiritual message: God loves us all. Recognizing the of dignity of each human being as primary, Pope Francis chooses to speak about homosexuals, for example, rather than generalizing about homosexuality, saying, "if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge…Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person." The pope's church is "the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people."

Non-Interference and the New Evangelization

Pope Francis's mission is simple: share the Gospel message of salvation—God's saving love—with every person on earth. How will he do this? With joy, proclamation in a missionary style, prayer, and not a little help from the Holy Spirit. Focusing less on the dogma and the church hierarchy, Pope Francis believes in the personal touch. The pope, the church, or the magesterium (teaching authority of the church) should not "be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question." By simplifying the message and employing "sound decentralization," Pope Francis hopes to grow healthier parishes and communities in which the focus is, once again, on the individual.

He calls all to join him. In the first Exhortation of his pontificate, which he delivered on Nov. 24, 2013, Evangelii Gaudium "Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis asks the faithful to evangelize with happiness, making a distinction between the pleasures that are so easy to find in today's world with authentic joy. Ever practical, Francis calls out the Christians "whose lives seem like Lent without Easter" or the one who looks "like someone who has just come back from a funeral." From himself on down, the pope calls all involved in pastoral care (which is every Christian's duty) to abandon small mindedness, embrace joy, and keep in mind the only dogmatic certainty that he espouses, repeatedly, "God is in every person's life. God is in everyone's life."

Feminine Genius and the New Frontier

On the topic of women, Pope Francis has this to say, "It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church…. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops…. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."

Pope Francis truly understands the difficulties of the world today. Creativity is essential. He likens the necessity for adaptability and fresh perspective to life on the frontier. And today the "frontiers are many." In his interview with America, the pope tells a story of when he was sick with lung disease. He was given antibiotics by the doctor, but the sister on duty decided to triple the dosages because "she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day," while the doctor, who was capable, was limited because of his isolation. While the doctor was in his lab, the sister was on the frontier. Laboratories are good and useful, but experience is priceless.

A Crisis of Truth

Another frontier is technology. Technology is a part of a new reality that is often confused with truth, he believes. That's not to say that technology and its fruits can't be valuable. The pope himself has nine Twitter accounts that simultaneously tweet his message in multiple languages. On Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, he sent out a grateful tweet acknowledging his 10 million followers. While he can't yet compete with Katy Perry (47.7 million) or Justin Bieber (47.2), that number is not bad for a 76-year-old Jesuit priest.

But truth for the pope is still best served with a personal touch. The stories are accumulating like hashtags: the pope calls the cell phone of a 35-year-old pregnant woman after receiving her plea for help, "Anna? This is Papa Francesco. . ."; for the first time in history, a pope personally answers a letter from an LGBT group who wrote him, asking for "openness and dialogue"; a picture of the pope posing with a newlywed couple who provide clown therapy for sick children, all wearing red clown noses; a picture of the pope with three teenage pilgrims in the first-ever "papal selfie."

The Pope Francis Effect

Francis's demeanor has certainly resonated with the people. According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, Pope Francis enjoys the favorable opinion of 8 out of 10 U.S. Catholics, or 79%. An Italian researcher, Massimo Introvigne, reports a rise in church attendance, most notably in England, and most understandably in Italy, six months after Pope Francis's election. There seems to be something about this church leader that is inspiring lapsed Catholics especially to come back to Mass. Rome is enjoying a tourist boom, with double-sized papal audiences and pilgrim traffic up 20% from Latin America and 66.5% from Argentina—Pope Francis's native land. And don't forget the babies! "Francesco" now tops the list of favorite baby names in Italy, having passed "Lorenzo" after the conclusion of the conclave. Names do matter; Pope Francis is the first to choose the moniker of that particular saint—a saint recognized as one of the church's greatest reformers, known for his humility and care of the poor.

Grace and Style

The fact is that Pope Francis has style. He doesn't believe in fancy cars or shoes; he chooses to drive around Vatican City in a hand-me-down car. He doesn't believe in extravagant digs; he shuns the papal apartments, staying in modest rooms in the guesthouse for visiting clergy. Here is a pope who calls people on their cell phones, answers their letters, and poses in selfies. He has style, class, humor, and humility. He talks the talk and walks the walk; he has what he calls (but doesn't claim—he's too humble) an authentic faith: "An authentic faith—which is never comfortable or completely personal—always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it."

It isn't hard to imagine that Pope Francis's willingness to be among the people is a threat to the status quo. But that is what people love about the Supreme Pontiff. He is fearless and he is real. It isn't hard to believe that, like Jesus, Pope Francis is a little like us; he goes to the dentist, he prays, he cares for others, he thinks deeply. He knows the value of the basic truth that we are all in this together and things will work out best if we listen to our mother and try to get along.

by Catherine McNiff