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Pope Francis is ‘making me think about my life’

A large drawing of Pope Francis depicting him as a superhero on a wall near the Vatican January 29, 2014.

ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS

This church wasn't built for surprises.

Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict XVI was designed in a spirit of certainty, with a top-down management style that treasured obedience and orthodoxy as the best expressions of a religion grounded in truths passed directly from God.

And then came Francis – a.k.a. Superpope, as depicted in a Roman street-art tribute that became the hit of the Vatican's suddenly trendy Twitter feed.

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All bets are off in a faith that until a year ago thought it knew exactly where it was heading – while glossing over glaring problems such as sex abuse, financial scandal, institutional in-fighting and alienation among the rank and file. A hierarchy that once shrugged off the challenges of modernity by imposing tighter rules and regulations is being led by a pop-culture superhero who refuses the role of judge. An organization that once presented its leader as the embodiment of sanctified supremacy now defers to the first pope to emerge from the fiercely independent, eternally questioning Jesuit order – a man of the streets who says he's a sinner, who revels in the messiness of humanity like a rocker being tossed through a mosh pit. No wonder he made the cover of Rolling Stone.

But is his promise of change for real, or will his strong talk be diluted into tepid deeds, as skeptics already fear?

The pioneering Francis is completely at ease in a crowd, agreeing to pose for people's selfies like they're the ones doing him a favour, comfortable in the mortal skin that has cast off Rome's extravagance in favour of simple white garments – a pope who spreads happiness just by freeing himself from the burdens and trappings of an office that for decades sucked the fun out of faith. He's the servant of God at ground level: When asked about his stance on homosexuals, as good a test as any of the traditional Catholic need to deny and denounce the fluctuations of modernity, he famously answered, "Who am I to judge?"

In a church that has resolutely turned away from the nagging imperfections of the world, this makes him a revolutionary.

"It just feels like he's brought a sense of urgency," says 25-year-old Karen Keays as she nurses her young son Simon in a back pew of St. Patrick's church in downtown Toronto. "This is the first time I've felt excited about the future of the church, and the main reason is because we have a pope who doesn't separate himself from everyone else."

That excitement extends well beyond the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world to include anyone looking for a more joyful message of hope and possibility than our glum, judgmental politicians are normally inclined to offer. In an Angus Reid poll this week, 67 per cent of Canadian respondents said they feel Francis is having a positive impact on his church.

In a belt-tightening world where debt reduction passes for moral leadership, where materialism has become an honourable life goal, Francis is a style icon for the disenchanted. He appeals to all those who reject the secular world's prosperity gospel, who want to soothe the hurt and marginalized, who ache to reconcile their highest values with the troubled world they live in. And somehow, following the Pope's new model, they also want to share the kind of pleasure that Francis clearly exudes in the midst of so much earthly pain.

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It's a fuzzy feeling of the kind often generated by modern paragons of self-improvement that doesn't instantly translate into good works or even increased church attendance. And it has already come under criticism from tough-minded doubters.

Free-market economists say the Pope is the last person to give advice on solving poverty (Francis, hardly a promoter of trade and investment, attacks income inequality while asking us to see the poor not as a problem but as an inspiration). Traditional Catholics worry that he wants to turn the church into just another NGO, thus depleting the ancient faith of the sacred identity and spiritual purity they cherish.

The unexpected popularity of the 77-year-old pontiff, combined with his relentless message of personal change, has created a novel challenge for the Catholic leadership class: They've spent a good part of the past year trying to figure out how to reconcile their values with his style, and harness the power of the so-called Francis effect.

"Francis is speaking a language that everybody can understand," says Paul-André Durocher, the Archbishop of Gatineau and president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This is creating a huge impact in the immediate connection between the Pope and so many people in the world."

Popularity in passing

Francis is not unique as a populist pope. John XXIII, who set in motion the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), was loved for his simplicity and compassion. And when John Paul II was first elected in 1978, he radiated both a charismatic charm that energized the church's image and a heroic toughness that challenged the suffocating inevitability of the Soviet empire. Who could foresee that the same toughness would be unleashed on Catholicism's free-thinkers, forcing progressives away from a church unwilling to make room for more than one point of view?

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But who could foresee where the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a luxury-shunning Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires who was more a minister to the poor than a truth-seeking theologian, would be heading a year after being chosen as Benedict's successor? The electors at the Vatican were not radicals by any means – they had come to power in a church held tightly by the iron grip of John Paul and then Benedict. And yet a majority of them selected a relative outsider who looks very much like an agent of change.

"Did the cardinals know what they were doing; did they know they'd get this strong stuff?" asks Thomas Rosica, a Basilian priest (and chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto) who assisted in the Vatican proceedings. "I believe yes, to a certain degree. They trusted that this person was a seasoned pastor and a very good administrator. And his love of the poor and living the simple life was extremely attractive."

The circumstances of Francis's election were highly unusual, which may have influenced the decision-making. Benedict, who had resigned just weeks before, was still alive – there was no mourning or eulogizing to distract the cardinals from the serious issues compromising the church's claims to sanctity. While the outward face of the institution remained unchanging and unbending in the wake of scandals ranging from the cover-up of priestly abuse and banking irregularities to the embarrassing allegations of mismanagement known as Butlergate, the cardinals recognized that the Vatican was in a mess.

"They had frank and open meetings, listed the problems and heard about the difficulties," says Father Rosica. "And then Bergoglio spoke, and everyone sat up. There was an honestness and an openness in his ability to address the situation. They traced a profile of what was needed – and came up with him."

The qualities that the cardinals saw in this calm and confident man remain, even if the manifestations of his honesty appear so different in the public spaces beyond the Sistine Chapel.

Francis lifts up the world by descending to its level. In a busy year of nonstop papal intervention, he has prayed with African migrants detained on the Italian island of Lampedusa while attacking the "globalization of indifference," washed the feet of young female prisoners in a Roman jail just as if they were latter-day apostles of Christ, caressed a disfigured man in St. Peter's Square before a crowd of 50,000, and indulgently shared the Vatican stage with a young boy who hugged him as he delivered a speech on family issues – an in-the-moment demonstration that this Pope doesn't just talk the talk.

"God is in every person's life," he told an interviewer, with his friendly updated version of dogmatic certainty. Heard in isolation, this could be mistaken for a conventional religious platitude devoid of real-world application. But by his actions, he has made it clear that it's a message meant to challenge the narrow interpretations of a Vatican-centred faith.

Catholic social-justice groups such as Development and Peace – which has seen its funding cut under the Harper government – believe that Francis will reawaken a sense of Christian compassion for the poor, particularly among the young. "It's an important cultural statement for this generation that the Pope is on the cover of Rolling Stone," says Michael Casey, the group's executive director.

"He's brought us back to the basics," says Mary Jo Leddy, a former nun who is the founder of Romero House, a centre for refugees that is rooted in the Catholic human-rights movement. "The previous popes, I think, were all good people and meant the best, but we got further and further away from a living sense of why we were a part of the church and what our purpose was."

For young Catholics, who over the past 35 years have known only the church of Benedict and John Paul II, Francis's first year has been full of surprise.

"It can be easy in a Catholic setting to feel that nothing ever changes," says 27-year-old Sarah Hanna, who studies the social anthropology of the Jesuits at the University of Regina's Campion College. "Our rituals and traditions are oriented to creating a sense of timelessness. And then I see Francis respond in ways I'm not used to, and then I realize, 'Oh yeah, things can change.'"

A divisive change

The church has changed once before in the memories of older adherents – during the Second Vatican Council, a belated reformation of Catholicism that ended up fracturing the faith into those who felt comfortable questioning established policies on such issues as birth control and those who preferred their theological truths to be ancient, settled and secure. It was perhaps the first time in the modern history of the church that it was being asked to take on a subversive political role: Liberation theologians stressed a policy known as the preferential option for the poor, an expression of solidarity with the powerless that was regarded by future Pope Benedict as a Marxist bid to enlist the faithful in a class struggle.

Where modernizing Catholics saw gospel truths being expounded in the fractious demand for change, John Paul II and Benedict believed they were fending off a secularizing attack on the church's authority that could lead only to chaos and godlessness. And so Catholicism retrenched and turned inward, preferring the purity of theological truth over the more awkward compromises required of those who try to fit their beliefs to the wider world.

With Francis, a pastor who was formed by the harsh truths of the Buenos Aires slums and had to navigate the Jesuit order through Argentina's brutal military dictatorship, the world is back in play.

"He expressly brings out the changes we've all been looking for," says Matthew Marquardt, a Toronto patent lawyer with a passion for the church's social-justice mission. "The rules of the church don't go away, but they don't have quite so much emphasis – they don't need to be at the front of our mind all the time. He tells us to go out and do things, not judge each other so much."

Francis is the Pope as role model. He gave up the papal palace for a humble hostel, shares his homilies on Twitter, talks to atheists like they have something to teach him about goodness, earned the nickname of "the cold-call pope" for his out-of-the-blue phone conversations, denounced the clergy's "psychology of princes" in front of a gathering of newly minted bishops, and told a crowd in Brazil that "I want the church to be in the streets."

A pope who gets credit for riding in a Ford Focus instead of a limousine leaves himself open to the charge that he's all style, no substance. Not so fast, says Jesuit historian John Meehan, president of Campion College: "What he's showing is that, when you're the Pope, a change of style is a change in substance."

And yet the debut this week of a Francis fanzine titled Il Mio Papa (My Pope), published by a company owned by disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, demonstrates how all these feelings of intimacy can easily be diverted into a more sentimental form of celebrity-worship.

Francis himself has confronted the personal mythologizing. "Painting the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive," he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera this week, expressing a fear that his effort to humanize the papacy was having the opposite effect.

But young Catholics like Sarah Hanna see much more in his display of normality. "People are very suspicious of the church a lot of the time; it can seem like an institution of a bygone era," she says. "What the Pope has accomplished is to give the impression that the church has something to say to us personally, today. That's a powerful message."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that confession numbers are up in Catholic churches, a sign that once-passive parishioners have been energized by Francis's performance. And his message resonates far beyond the inner sanctums of the faith.

"He keeps speaking about the peripheries, all these people on the fringe peering in," says Father Rosica. "Most of my friends are on the outside of the church, not the inside, and I ask them, 'What's the big deal?' And they tell me, 'He's making me think about my life.'"

Among Francis's more enthusiastic Canadian followers is Philip Berger, who is Jewish and a doctor at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto at the forefront of the fight against federal cuts to refugee health-care.

"Here you have a Pope who says that we must stand beside refugees," he says. "That should translate into a public policy that is fair and welcoming, and is inconsistent with a policy that name-calls and demonizes them. I think this will test those Catholics, particularly in the federal government, who have so harshly come down on refugees. I just wonder what's going on in their heads when they see the Pope standing with the refugees in Lampedusa."

Conservative and traditional Catholics found it easier to reconcile their religious and political views under John Paul and Benedict, when the church's solidarity with the poor seemed more muted, and common ground could be found in critiques of liberalism and moral relativism. Francis's message – rooted in that "Who am I to judge?" mindset – has proved to be more complicated.

"He's reminding us that there's no place for rigidity," says Santo Arrigo, the pastor at St. Patrick's church. "We need to grow and, if we hold on to orthodoxy, there's a point where we exclude people without seeing their needs."

Abortion, abuse untouched

In a church that represents its values as eternal and unchanging, the solution for many of the faithful has been to look for the sense of continuity in Francis's first year – in effect, to bring the conversation back to temporal style vs. spiritual substance. After all, he has not challenged church teachings on issues such as abortion, even as he has questioned the long-accepted certainties about what constitutes a good Catholic.

"If it's unsettling, it's not in a way that says 'I'm going to take my rosary and go home,'" says Peter Stockland, publisher of Convivium, a conservative-leaning magazine that defends the role of religious faith in public life. Mr. Stockland doesn't consider Francis a subversive; he sees him as restating the authentic message of the faith that was somehow obscured under popes less gifted at catching the wider world's attention.

"I hear his name coming up in conversation with people who I never imagined would even know the name of the Pope, never mind his message. Others may disagree, but the notion that there's a discontinuity in the message is something of an illusion. The message is very consistent with Benedict and JPII. … What Francis has said may be more media-savvy and palatable; maybe people are more open to hear him because of his expression and demeanour. But the message is not radically different at all."

A similar conclusion has been drawn by discontented Catholics and ex-Catholics. One former Catholic activist, who says she was sexually abused by a priest as a teenager, left the church she grew up in because "it was really clear that there was too great a divide between what was being proclaimed and what was the reality."

For her, Francis remains a disappointment because he hasn't made his church more accountable and transparent for its history of abuse, or replaced the adversarial treatment of victims with a tone of reconciliation in keeping with the spirit of his pontificate. (The Angus Reid poll found that 42 per cent of Canadians agree Francis hasn't done nearly enough.)

"My family and friends want to believe the bad days are behind us," she says. "But I'm afraid Catholics have a tendency to turn a blind eye, or they wouldn't be paying to support this institution. He's a cute, friendly guy saying nice things about people who are marginalized. But he isn't saying anything new – this is just a middle-of-the-road interpretation of Catholicism, and it shouldn't come as such a big surprise. The fact that a priest who's supposed to have a vow of poverty decides not to live in a palace shouldn't shock anyone. The whole culture has been living like princes – that's the scandal."

Yet that culture may well have to adapt as Francis advances his model of renewed Catholicism – a faith that lives in the public square, and finds its best values in the everyday challenges of ordinary people.

"We've spent a lot of time talking about what Francis calls 'pastoral conversion' – how we need to go out toward the margins, rather than sitting in offices waiting for people to come to us," says Archbishop Durocher. "This is a new issue and it's galvanizing energies and interests. … But it will take time to issue forth in concrete examples."

Many less-ideological bishops find themselves in a quandary. "These are people who grew up in conservative homes, went to conservative seminaries, had conservative teachers and ended up as team players under John Paul and Benedict," says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "Whatever the Pope said, that's what they said. These people are confused because now they've got a new Pope saying very different things. So some will follow Francis because they get it, and some will follow him because they're loyal churchmen who believe they should get on board – maybe not with complete enthusiasm, but they won't look askance at priests who adopt the Pope's style, who do what he does."

Even the Pope, unwilling celebrity that he is, recognizes that ultimately all religion has to be local if his style is going to be fleshed out with substance. For Catholicism to change in accordance with Francis's will, Mr. Reese says, the churches have to change as well.

"You hear all sorts of statements from ex-Catholics that they like this guy, that they're going to give the church another chance," he says. "But the problem is, when they go back, what will they find? If it's the same-old, same-old, with a boring guy in the pulpit and a community that's not welcoming, still operating under the rules and regulations of the culture wars, then they're going to turn around and leave."

Catholicism, he says, still acts like a "lazy monopoly" when, instead, it needs to become entrepreneurial in its desire to bring joy to the world. "The Pope's impact has to trickle down and change the hearts and minds of priests and bishops so that they take on his style of leadership."

And if that doesn't happen?

"Then he's just another flash in the pan."

'Such a different tone'

But for the young family gathered for worship at St. Patrick's church, the Francis effect remains powerful. "There's such a different tone in the church," says Mike Keays, a 26-year-old carpenter, while baby Simon rests in mother Karen's arms. "Francis is willing to talk to anybody. And he's willing to listen, too."

"He's brought me the inspiration to live more like he lives," Ms. Keays says, as the church doors open wide and hundreds of parishioners flock into the streets. "To live like Jesus would have lived."

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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