You know who I freakin’ love? This new pope. Pope Francis. You know who I’m talking about, right? The pope. Are you watching this guy? Because you should be. It’s early, but I’m thinking… best pope ever.
Now, I have a confession to make: like millions of other people in this country and around the world, I was raised Catholic, but stopped going to Mass—my freshman year at Brown, to be exact. And while I still have affection for the church of my childhood—the smell of incense, the saying of the Our Father, and all of the rituals—I haven’t felt very warmly about the institutional Catholic Church, to say the least, in the years since. But somehow, this guy, Pope Francis, is turning me around.
I liked him from the beginning, because he, like my father, was a Jesuit—a liberal order that promotes social justice. I love me some Jesuits. Right out of the gate, Francis offered up a few gestures to demonstrate a break from his predecessor Benedict. Rather than living in the grand papal apartment, Francis resides in the modest Vatican guest house.
The Vatican’s garbage collectors were the first employees he invited to morning masses. And instead of washing the feet of 12 priests during an Easter Week ritual, as tradition dictates, Francis washed the feet of 12 young inmates including two women and two Muslims.
I thought to myself at the time, well, that’s cool, but he’s new at the job. He’ll probably start becoming more pope-like as time goes on.
But no. He just keeps being awesome.
He showed up to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, not in the imposing Popemobile, but in the back of a rental car. He’s not above taking a selfie with the kids. He plans on driving a used car around town. And he’s urged others to do the same: ”It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car. 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.”
If you don’t quite understand the concept of Catholic guilt, I’m pretty sure that’s it.
Perhaps most amazing of all: the pope is now picking up the phone and calling people who write to him for advice and prayers—earning him the nickname “Cold Call Pope.” He phoned a woman who had been raped by a police officer in Argentina, telling her she was not alone, and to have faith in the justice system.
He’s comforted a pregnant woman whose married boyfriend tried to pressure her into an abortion, Francis offering to personally baptize her baby.
Now all of that—while incredibly awesome—is symbolism.
But Francis has also shown he’s pretty good substantively, as well. On the once taboo subject of homosexuality, Francis told reporters: ”If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
On the subject of atheism, Francis says non-believers should ”obey their conscience” and that “God’s mercy has no limits.”
He’s even suggesting that he’s open to a debate on married priests. His second-in-command told a Venezuelan newspaper that celibacy is not dogma, therefore the concept of priestly celibacy should “reflect the democratic spirit of the times.”
Now, I don’t have a whole lot of hope that the Church itself is going to come around and change tenets or official positions that I deeply oppose—its rejection of things like gay marriage, women in the priesthood, a woman’s autonomy over her own body. I just don’t see that happening any time soon.
But given the constraints of what being pope is, you can operate in one of two ways: you can be a jerk about it, or you can be awesome.
And this guy is choosing to be awesome. And not only is that great for the Church, it’s great for the world to have a pope talking about what this pope is talking about: grace, humility, peace and compassion for others.
Because that is the Church at its best, and the one that some part of me still loves.