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Not a ‘Roman from Rome’ Pope Francis electrifies, confounds the world

As the first year of his papacy comes to a close, the man once known as Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems to have launched a revolution — if not in church teaching, then in personality and approach, church observers say.

John Allen, a Vatican analyst for CNN and associate editor for the Boston Globe, calls Pope Francis a “magnet for humanity.”

“If there’s a Francis revolution going on, it’s not a revolution in doctrine. But there is clearly a revolution in tone,” Allen said.

Pope Francis is an international media figure who in December became Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” even though the Argentinian was little known globally barely nine months before. A good number of more than a billion Catholics worldwide — and some 75 million in the United States and the nearly 2.5 million in Ohio — hang on his every word and work. Italian newspapers portray him as someone who sneaks out at night to feed the poor. Theologians argue about him. Liberals claim him, as do conservatives.

And even he seems to be growing weary of the “mythology” that has built up around him, insisting he is not a “superman.”

A world appeal

Has Pope Francis begun to change the Catholic church? And when speaking of an institution that’s 2,000 years old, what does “change” mean?

Allen has covered the last three popes. All were immensely popular in their own way, but with Francis, something special is happening, he said.

Allen calls the crowds of pilgrims and visitors Francis draws for his Wednesday general audiences “oceanic.”

It’s not just Catholics taking notice. “I think perhaps the most distinctive thing about Francis is his appeal to the world outside the Catholic church,” Allen said.

Francis has appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and scores of other secular magazines. Reports have him tripling or even quadrupling the number of pilgrims who flock to Rome. And a Pew Research survey results released March 6 say seven in 10 U.S. Catholics believe the pope represents “a major change in direction” for the church.

“There’s something about his external appeal that is just qualitatively different,” Allen said.

The surprises began just moments after his election by the College of Cardinals last March 13. In his first remarks from St. Peter’s Basilica, he asked thousands of pilgrims outside to pray for him. For some, that was an unexpected gesture.

Mary Pyper, past national president and current Cincinnati regional president of Catholic radio network Radio Maria, recalled being somewhat apprehensive of the new pope, having heard that the former Cardinal Bergoglio did not enjoy smiling.

“That was the first thing that was reported about him,” Pyper said. “But that hasn’t turned out to be quite the case.”

Beloved and inclusive

His election was notable. He was the first pope to choose the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the church’s most beloved saints, recognized for his humility. He is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years.

“I love him,” said Dennis Doyle, a University of Dayton religious studies professor. “He’s the greatest thing. He has just brought hope to my life.”

The election of Francis showed the church has shed an “exclusiveness” that once leaned to Europe and Italy, said Father Louis Gasparini, head of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s Hispanic ministry.

The pope “doesn’t have to be a Roman from Rome,” Gasparini said.

”It’s been actually quite phenomenal,” said Tony Stieritz, director of Catholic Social Action Office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “Within the Catholic community, I’ve seen so many more parishioners reading church documents. It’s not a small number, either.”

Even those long skeptical of the Catholic church find themselves drawn to him.

“I like him a lot better than his predecessors,” said Dan Frondorf, a Cincinnati resident who helped lead the now-inactive Southwestern Ohio chapter of SNAP — Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Core traditions unchanged

Some wonder if behind all the adulation, though, are the seeds of misunderstanding. Many Catholics believe the pope is the guardian of Church teachings, not a politician meant to update them and make them more popular. He is meant to be an anchor, not a buoy that floats with passing fashions, some argue.

Anyone expecting Pope Francis to alter longstanding teachings on abortion, contraception, the reception of sacraments and other issues will be disappointed, Allen said.

“He has made it abundantly clear that he is not going to do that,” he said.

“He has gone on record several times to say that the tradition of the church’s teaching, he’s not necessarily there to sweep anything aside,” Stieritz said.

Father David Brinkmoeller, pastor of St. Helen’s and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception parishes in Dayton, points to remarks by Francis critical of “trickle-down (economic) theories” or what he views as the excesses of capitalism.

“That’s nothing new,” Brinkmoeller said in an interview at the St. Helen’s rectory. “Pope Benedict (XVI, Francis’s immediate predecessor) wrote a tremendous teaching on that very thing. But this guy says it in a way that people trust.”

UD’s Doyle, however, wonders if change is more possible than some realize. He doesn’t expect Francis to directly contradict his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

“Change in relation to papacies takes more than one pope because you can’t contradict the pope before you,” Doyle said. “You can let certain things become not so much a priority, and then the pope after you can change things.”

Humble approach

Rabbi Abie Ingber, head of Xavier University’s Office of Interfaith Community Engagement, has met Pope John Paul II and has no doubt that Francis represents a continuation of that pope’s love for the Jewish people. Ingber has met Abraham Skorka, the Argentine rabbi who wrote a book with the then-Cardinal Bergoglio, “On Heaven and Earth,” published in 2010.

“I saw the energy and wonder and love that Rabbi Skorka had for the then-Cardinal Bergoglio,” Ingber said. “I’m high on that potential.”

Ingber recalled hearing tales of Bergoglio taking the bus to appointments, something he regarded as amazing. That has made an impression on others.

“It’s a human, humble approach with every kind of people,” said Gasparini.

While Frondorf said Francis has done “a wonderful job” of reaching out to “the poor in spirit” and encouraging others to do likewise, he was disappointed with a recent interview with an Italian newspaper in which Francis defended the church’s record on child sexual abuse scandals and complained that the church “is the only one attacked” on the issue.

“That was an example of where he dusted off a (older remark) from his predecessors,” Frondorf said.

Frondorf acknowledges that many are indeed guilty of similar abuse — parents, relatives, educators and others. But he contends that, rightly or wrongly, the church is held to a higher standard.

“He’s got to understand that the church has a reputation for being God’s representative on earth,” he said.

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