Time magazine named Pope Francis I as their person of the year for 2013, and it’s easy to see why. The first pope to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor, the pope has made it clear that his mission is to reach out to his flock. A man who sees “the church as a field hospital after battle,” Pope Francis is ready to enact change. In his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” he wrote, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” Read on to find out more about why we dig Francis.
He’s literally hands-on
Last November, images went viral of Pope Francis touching the face of a severely disfigured man. Not one to minister from the confines of the Vatican, Francis went out into the streets and actually touched his flock. Vinicio Riva, the disfigured man in the photograph, suffers from a condition called neurofibramatosis type 1, and was moved by the pope’s action.
“I’m not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn’t know that,” Riva said. “But he did it, period: He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love. I tried to speak, to say something but I was unable to. The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.” Riva was particularly struck by the pontiff’s willingness to touch him when so many others refuse to, including Riva’s own father. Riva’s sister says that their father never touches him because he is “embarrassed” by his son. Not so for the pope.
He’s accepting of other religions
In July, at the end of Ramadan, Francis sent the annual papal message to the Muslim community. Each year, the message contains a “proposed theme for common reflection” and Francis’ chosen theme was “Promoting Mutual Respect through Education.” In the message, he encourages that Muslims and Christians alike respect the values and teachings of both religions. He wrote, “When we offer [our neighbors] our good wishes on the occasion of a religious celebration, we simply seek to share their joy, without making reference to the content of their religious convictions. Regarding the education of Muslim and Christian youth, we have to bring up our young people to think and speak respectfully of other religions and their followers and to avoid ridiculing or denigrating their convictions and practices.”
The pope also expressed a more respectful tone toward atheism than previous pontiffs. When asked about the church’s stance toward those who don’t believe in God, Francis responded, “Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart, the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”
He doesn’t judge homosexuals
Last September, Francis made headlines for his stance on homosexuality. While he did not break with Catholic doctrine (which condemns homosexuality), and stated that the Church has the right to state its opinion on homosexuality, he also said that the Church cannot “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians. “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…Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a big step for the Catholic church and very different from the previous pope’s stance.
Not only does Pope Francis have a Twitter account, but he has more than three million followers tuning into his 140-character snippets of wisdom. On top of that, he also introduced the world to the concept of the “papal selfie” back in August, when he met with 500 teenagers equipped with smartphones. After telling the Catholic youth, “You are bearers of hope. You, in fact, live in the present, but are looking at the future. You are the protagonists of the future, artisans of the future. Make the future with beauty, with goodness and truth. Have courage. Go forward. Make noise,” he gamely posed for photos, which went viral in no time. (Image tweeted by Fabio M. Ragona.)
He’s cleaning up the Church’s finances
Concerned by capitalism and greed, the pope has been working to organize the Church’s finances and the Vatican Bank (which has been the subject of scandals in the past), which he may consider closing. Last November, Francis expressed problems with the idea of “unfettered capitalism,” claiming that it is a “new tyranny” and has created an “economy of exclusion and inequality” that has been detrimental to people around the world. His remarks upset many conservatives, including radio host Rush Limbaugh, who accused the pope of being a Marxist. Francis’ calm response? “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” He also said he was speaking not as a “as a technician but according to the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and this does not mean being Marxist.” He merely wanted to present a “snapshot of what is happening” around the world. Well played.
He’s not into flashy cars (or much else)
The popes have long been known for their fancy “popemobiles,” which are frequently bulletproof to thwart assassination attempts (Pope Benedict’s is shown below). But Francis is a different sort of pontiff, so naturally, he drives a different kind of car (at least around Vatican City). Last summer, Francis implored priests and nuns to eschew fancy vehicles, saying, “It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car, you can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world,” he said. At least one priest in Italy took heed, and gifted the pope with 1984 Renault with more than 186,000 miles on it.
This falls in line with Francis’ typical style. While a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Francis utilized the subway. He rode in a minibus on the night of his election, and has also driven a Ford Focus from the Vatican motor pool. A man who appreciates the “humble” things, he forgoes the large papal apartments available to him, instead choosing to live in a Vatican guesthouse.
He breaks antiquated traditions
Last March, shortly after his election, Francis raised eyebrows by breaking one of the papacy’s oldest traditions: He became the first pope ever to wash and kiss the feet of two young women — convicts, no less — despite the fact that the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual has been exclusively restricted to men (liturgical rules exclude women). Though some were concerned that the pope had set a questionable example, others lauded him for showing greater inclusiveness within the Church. As for the pope, he simply saw it as part of his duty. “This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop, I must be at your service,” Francis said.
While some conservative Catholics feared that the pope’s action would signal greater roles for women within the church, others were heartened by the act. “The pope’s washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on — and even banned — in some dioceses. It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest.
He sneaks out (allegedly)
It’s well-documented that as a cardinal, Francis used to sneak out at night to sit and eat with the homeless. According to HuffPo, it was part of his “aim to share the plight of the poor and let them know someone cared.” It would seem that as pope, his days of sneaking out would be over, but that may not be the case. A “knowledgable source” in Rome claims that Francis has continued his late night ministry, saying that “Swiss guards confirmed that the pope has ventured out at night, dressed as a regular priest, to meet with homeless men and women.”
It seems likely that the pope accompanies Archbishop Konrad Krajewski on nighttime trips to give alms to the poor. Krajewski has said, “When I say to him ‘I’m going out into the city this evening’, there’s the constant risk that he will come with me.” When asked whether the pope actually joined him, Krajewski demurred, suggesting that Francis has in fact gone along.
He used to be a bouncer
Really. Before he found his calling as a Jesuit priest, the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio worked the door at a nightclub to earn money while he was a student. So he knows a thing or two about life outside the church, which makes him all the more approachable.
Of course, the Pope still clings to some traditional doctrine. As Time points out, he’s opposed to the idea of female priests (although he does acknowledge that women are important to the church) and does not support gay marriage. In terms of equality, there’s still a ways to go. But Francis’ determination to bring the Catholic faith to the streets and help the needy signify a definite positive shift in the church.