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Pope Francis: Is the people's pontiff a revolutionary? (+video)

Pope Francis 'gets' the vast Roman Catholic middle – and that, alone, may be revolutionary for a pontiff. He may delight the world by veering from Vatican script on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception, but will he change the ancient church?

By Staff writer / November 3, 2013

  • New face of an old church

Pope Francis: This profile of the pontiff is the cover story in the Nov. 4, 2013 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Luca Zennaro/AP

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When Italian journalist Gianni Valente traveled to Argentina to cover the country's economic collapse in 2002 for a Roman Catholic magazine, he came away not with just a story in his notebook but with the seeds of a friendship with a man who struck him as a singular priest – a man with a broad-spectrum empathy, whom the journalist continues to this day to call "my priest."

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Mr. Valente says that Jorge Mario Bergoglio – then-cardinal of Argentina – seemed particularly close to the people; he didn't just speak in political and social terms about the crisis that wiped out the savings of his nation's middle class, but he actually spoke with a deep sense of humanity that set him apart from other church leaders of the time. "He talked about the suffering of parents, and how they would cry, but only at night so that their children wouldn't see," he recalls.

Cardinal Bergoglio's ability to see "the heart of each individual," says Valente, became clear in his own life, as a friendship formed between the two men, over the phone and through letters.

Bergoglio would send the Italian family his important homilies and Christmas and Easter cards, sometimes enclosing newspaper clippings: Bergoglio, who played basketball as a boy and who knew Valente's young son was an avid hoops fan, would send stories he had cut out in the local press about Argentine NBA player Manu Ginóbili.

It's a small detail about the priest who became Pope Francis, but it is a clue to how a relatively unknown religious leader of South America has become a global sensation in the first six months of his leadership of the Catholic Church.

He's seen as a "regular guy," a "friend," a "grandfather," and, as one teenager in Rome put it, he's someone who just "gets me." From the very beginning, Pope Francis was different. He is the first Jesuit named to the papacy, the first from outside Europe in 1,300 years. And in choosing the name Francis, the first pope to take the name of the saint from Assisi who renounced material wealth, he signaled he wants a new kind of papacy.

He is famous for taking buses and paying his own hotel bills, endearing himself to Europeans mired in the economic crisis and observers all over who have been disgusted by the perceived extravagances of the Vatican. He has opened dialogue with atheists and made surprise phone calls to those who reach out. In the past half year he has shown a liking for veering from the Vatican script, rocking the Catholic world with bombshell quotes like one about homosexuals. "Who am I to judge?" he asked rhetorically.

Some call this demagoguery, pandering at its worst, and claim that he is weakening the primacy of the papacy. Questions over his role in Argentina during the country's Dirty War remain. And while some see him as "ultraconservative," others see him as a raging liberal. But for all the hype, it might be that nothing is really changing. Pope Francis has stated himself that he supports the doctrine of the church. That means abortion is out; contraception, too; and most definitely gay marriage (though he did support civil unions as a compromise to a gay marriage law in Argentina). He wants a bigger role for women, but says the door is closed on women's ordination.

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