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Five burning questions about Pope Francis, answered

Why is Pope Francis unlike any leader of the Catholic Church we've seen before?

NEW YORK - Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared Pope Francis to be "the leading progressive voice in the world today." During his first public address in the U.S. on Wednesday, Francis lived up to that title, as the Argentine-born pope spared no time in bringing up hot-button issues like global warming and immigration. 

The head of the Roman Catholic Church has captivated the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers around the world through his pastoral style of ministry, in which he seeks to find God in all things, including humanity's most vulnerable populations. His six-day U.S. tour, as an example, includes visits with America's homeless and prison inmates. 

One thing is clear: Francis could influence the modern world in a bigger way than Pope John XXIII. But what is it that makes the Jesuit Pope Francis different than any of his predecessors? Just that: He is the first pope from the Society of Jesus, an order unlike any other in the Church. MSNBC sat down with Jack Raslowsky, the 33rd president of Xavier High School, a 168-year-old Jesuit school in New York City, to find out answers to five of the most-asked questions about Pope Francis, the peoples' pastor:

MSNBC: Enthusiasm for Francis’ papacy on a global scale is unrivaled. What specific aspect of Francis’ work as pope is resonating with the world and setting it aflame?

Raslowsky: There’s a hunger for authenticity in the world, and it’s what people want in their religious leaders. Pope Francis has a great love of people, a great ability to forgive. In many ways, he’s an embodiment of mercy. People are responding to his humanity and his ability, through that humanity, to make God manifest, to make God real, to make God present in the world. I think people also appreciate his unpredictability. God is a God of surprises. In his human way, Francis is a Pope of surprises. John Paul II was a philosopher, Benedict XVI was a theologian, but Francis is a pastor. People want to be in relationship with their pastor.

MSNBC: What does Pope Francis’ visit mean for the United States, and why is it important for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike?

Raslowsky: One of the challenges for religious leaders is to speak truth to power. That’s complicated. Francis embodies the values, the teachings, and the wisdom of the Catholic Church, which at its core makes people uncomfortable. At its core, the Church doesn’t fit easily into political labels or divisions. It respects the fundamental dignity of every human being, created in the image and likeness of God. During his visit, Francis will call us all to deepen our appreciation for the dignity of every human being in American society.

MSNBC: What should we expect from the Pope’s address to Congress? After his success in brokering the deal between the U.S. and Cuba, can we expect more global politicking from Francis?

Raslowsky: Our political labels and descriptions generally serve our purposes. They allow us to put people in boxes. They allow us to engage or ignore. They open doors or they close doors. I think Francis, and Benedict before him and John Paul II before him, are not easily put into boxes. You do their message, their work, and their lives a disservice by doing that. Whatever Francis’ intervention in Cuban-American relations has been, and whatever he will do in the future, it’s rooted in caring for people at the margins.

MSNBC: Pope Francis is a member of the Society of Jesus. How does his identity as a Jesuit inform his papacy – and how does it make it unlike any other we’ve seen before?

Raslowsky: One hallmark of the Society of Jesus and Ignatian spirituality is finding God in all things—in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Francis lives a life that acknowledges that, which is a fundamentally Jesuit way of proceeding. That worldview springs from the Spiritual Exercises—his own personal experience of praying through the incarnation of Jesus in the world. Once you’ve had those experiences, you can’t help but respond. Francis’ experience of the Exercises and his personal relationship with God are the sources of his ease, his honesty, his authenticity, and his peace. “Who am I to judge?” is not a flippant comment but a belief in the mercy and the wonder of God. 

MSNBC: Do the pope’s scheduled audiences with homeless, immigrant, and prison populations suggest a larger theme about his visit to the U.S.?

Raslowsky: Absolutely. The Pope has talked consistently about going to the margins. Who are the least in society? Even good, generous, caring people don’t want to spend time in prison, don’t want to spend time present with the homeless, don’t want to spend time with the afflicted. Francis is modeling what he hopes from us. What Francis is doing is what believers should do. There’s a power to his witness. 

Jack Raslowsky has served as the 33rd President of Xavier High School since 2009; he is the first layman ever to lead the school. He previously served as Superintendent of Schools in Hoboken, N.J.,, provincial assistant for education and lay formation for the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, and principal of St. Peter's Prep, a Jesuit high school in Jersey City, N.J. Jack earned master's degrees in education administration from Harvard University and systematic theology from the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology of Seton Hall University. He is a board member for the Ignatian Solidarity Network. He and his wife, Sarah, have four children.