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?
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John Allen Jr., a longtime Vatican observer for the National Catholic Reporter, says this pope is appealing to the big Catholic "middle," both from the developing world, where most Catholics live – Latin America has the largest share of Catholics in the world, with 425 million – and Europe and the US, where Catholics have strayed because they disagree with church dogma. In this Pope Francis differs from his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who envisioned a more orthodox church, even if it was smaller. "He wants to project a more merciful and compassionate face of the church," says Mr. Allen. "That is the agenda of the Catholic middle."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Pope Francis: a unique pontiff
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He 'gets' the Catholic middle
When Simona Luppino, a young Italian mother of 3 – and eight months pregnant – heard the pope's quote on homosexuals, she says she thought, "Thank God."
"It's always been the message of the church, but he managed to communicate it in a more human way," she said after a recent Sunday mass at the Sts. Elizabeth and Zechariah Parish in the far outskirts of Rome.
Her church sits on a hill in the community of Prima Porta, where parish priest Father Benoni Ambarus has been fighting against the tide of parishioners leaving the pews, just like other priests from Boston to Berlin to Buenos Aires.
The percentage of Catholics in the US who said they attend mass at least once a week dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. The situation is at a crisis in Europe, today home to only 24 percent of the world's Catholics, compared with Latin America's 39 percent.
A young priest who is not yet 40 wearing open-toed sports sandals after mass, Father Ambarus hugs parishioners on their way out the door and teases young kids and teens. He says the building, which went up in 2010, felt unfriendly to many, and he requested of Rome's cardinal that the pope visit, to draw some interest. Pope Francis came on May 26, his first parish visit in Rome, during which he heard confessions and gave a homily about the selflessness of love.
"His language is so simple, so direct, so credible. People feel close to him," Ambarus says of the pope, who has often called himself "a sinner." "They are not used to thinking theologically, but he speaks about real life."
Clementina Favoccia, a Catholic in her heart but who doesn't attend mass except for special occasions – because she is tired, she says, after a week of work as a hairdresser and family obligations – might become a more regular fixture. She was far away from the pope when her son was receiving his First Communion in May – figuratively and literally – but when he came to her church she says that "peace and tranquility" washed over her. "He seemed like a close friend," she says.
Chiara Grande, a 15-year-old with big brown eyes who sat with her friends in the church basement after a potluck of pasta and focaccia on a recent Sunday, gave a confession to the pope – the "highlight" of her life as a Catholic – because she says he just "gets me."
On the Sunday Chiara was there, the church was overflowing with parishioners. Even though it was the start of the pastoral year, when increased numbers would be there, Ambarus said he does think something has changed since the pope's visit. "He has opened the streets, and the minds, and broken down the walls," he said. "He makes [a priest's] job easier."
Style is substance
So far, most of the change that has happened in the Holy See has been a matter of style, as Catholics wait to see what substantive changes ultimately are made.
Pope Francis's first priority seems to be to revamp Vatican bureaucracy, called the Curia Romana, to make it more transparent and less bureaucratic. He named a group of eight cardinals from all over the world including the US, informally called the G8, to advise him on key issues, including giving laypeople a greater role in the evolution of the church.