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."
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.
And yet he has also said that the church cannot remain obsessed over "culture war" issues of the day. It is clear that he is trying to appeal to the Catholic middle, those repelled by the impunity of scandal in the church, from pedophilia to money laundering, and tired of a church they say is always saying, "No." But whether he is able – or willing – to usher in major reform remains an open question.
"I feel very much that this is [like] the perestroika of Gorbachev," says Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican observer in Rome. "There is a complete change of atmosphere. There is a revolution under way. The only question is, how will it end? And will his papacy last long enough to see it through?"
No record of reform
Pope Francis was no great reformer in his 40-year rise through leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, a fact that elicits criticism even today. He was a social conservative who stayed out of the spotlight and lived simply from his earliest positions in the church.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, Bergoglio was the first child of Italian immigrants and grew up like many middle-class Argentine boys, collecting stamps, playing the card game brisca with his parents, and dancing the milonga. At age 13, he started to work in a hosiery factory, and after high school became a chemical technician.
He decided to become a priest at 17 and entered seminary four years later – a decision his mother didn't accept for years, he told biographers Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. But he soared as a capable leader, from provincial supervisor in his 30s to becoming archbishop of Argentina and later cardinal.
His career in Argentina is not without controversy, particularly because of the church's role during the country's Dirty War.
But social justice was at the core of Pope Francis's faith, insists Argentine parish priest Father José Maria "Pepe" di Paola, who was assigned by Pope Francis to work in the Buenos Aires slums in 1997. The priest says that the future pope, who took phone calls at any time of the night, has never been "a prince of the church.... In Argentina, he is seen as the pope of the slums" who put the welfare of the poor first. That connection to the poor seems evident, notes Gianfranco Carranza, a high school student from the largest Buenos Aires slum, Villa 21-24. When the teen traveled to the Vatican in April with 43 other youths to receive their First Communion from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, he was surprised when the pope said to him: "You're the boy from Villa 21-24."
"I couldn't believe he recognized me," says young Gianfranco.
A man of rattletrap cars and plain cassocks
The pope's choice of the name Francis – from St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century patron saint of animals and ecology venerated by Catholics for his humility and simplicity – might have been a sign of continuity for his Argentine admirers. But the name's implicit rejection of church ostentation was a surprise to many appreciative Catholics around the world, like Croatian Vlado Viskovic, who came to Assisi Oct. 4 during the pope's visit to his namesake's tomb.
Mr. Viskovic sat for a long time in the pews of San Damiano, the simple, dimly lit church with fresco walls that St. Francis rebuilt in 1205. "I wanted my son to come here, to this place that Francis built with his hands," said Viskovic, who named that son Franjo, after St. Francis.
"It's the most beautiful church I have ever seen," said Franjo, now 19.
The two traced the pope's footsteps all day in the town that overlooks the rolling hills of Umbria, dotted with olive groves and cypress trees. "He is a pope for the people, for the jailed, for the modest, all people. He is a pope for us," said Viskovic.
The pope himself has said he is no St. Francis. But he admires him for being "a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical," Pope Francis told Italy's La Repubblica newspaper. "He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn, and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women."
Many Catholics, however, see St. Francis in the pope. He has condemned the "idol called money." He just expelled a German bishop, dubbed the "Bishop of Bling," for his over-the-top spending on a diocesan residence. He urged high clerics not to drive fancy cars and then accepted a 29-year-old Renault 4 from an older Italian priest; he uses it to putter around Vatican City. His preference for a simple white cassock and skullcap led one fashion writer to wonder if it will inspire more austere looks from Italy's designers. He said he decided to live in a no-frills apartment in the Vatican guesthouse, instead of the Apostolic Palace, partly because he wants to be around a community of people.
"He doesn't want the big car or the gold cross, or to be protected by a lot of policemen. He wants contact with the people," says Andrea Tornielli, an Italian journalist who has met the pope. "He is not saying that all the people around the world have to be the same. But he is setting a big example."
The papal mystery: Is he right or left?
When Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, Pope Francis was at the helm of the nation's Catholic Church, which opposed the law. But as pope, on a flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, where he celebrated World Youth Day in August, he said to reporters: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"
Technically the substance of his words wasn't new: The church has always proclaimed mercy for all. But the statement created excitement among liberals and concern among conservatives, which all intensified when, in a subsequent interview with the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, he blasted an obsession with culture-war issues: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods."
"It sent a message that didn't sit well with a lot of pro-lifers," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who says the pope's off-the-cuff style has confused many conservatives. He personally doesn't believe the pope is a "closet left-wing secularist." Still, he says, liberal American Catholics, who once selectively ignored papal statements that went against their ideologies, now line up behind the pope and point at the right for defending church teachings. "The left smells a certain victory right now," he says.
In many ways, the pope's positions on these issues reflect his origins in Latin America, where the terms liberal and conservative have different meanings than they might in the United States, Africa, or Europe. Latin Americans tend to be conservative on issues of sexual morality, for example, but more liberal on questions of economy, war, and environment.
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."
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.
"[W]e should be thinking [this church] is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people," he told La Civiltà Cattolica. "We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."
He is also moving toward more transparency for the Vatican bank, which has been plagued by scandals and recent claims of money laundering. In October, the 126-year-old bank published its financial accounts for the first time.
Catholic reformists are also anticipating changes in women's leadership, and permission for divorced and remarried Catholics to take the Eucharist. They also have some hope that the Vatican will address strict rules on priest celibacy, says Rene Reid, who organizes the global Catholic Church Reform group.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a scholar of Catholicism in Rome, hopes a woman could be named president or vice president of the pontifical councils – a monumental shift that, she says, could stem scandals in the future. "The sex abuse scandal might not have happened if more women were in chief positions," says Ms. Scaraffia.
Those Catholics seeking more radical change could be in for disappointment, says Ms. Reid. "Some in our group wish [more leadership for women] would lead all the way to the ordination of women. That's not going to happen."
The skeptical compatriots
Others are less anxious about the future, because they're still riddled with doubt about the past. While Pope Francis enjoys immense popularity – a new Pew poll of American Catholics, for example, shows that 79 percent have a positive view of him – his reputation was tarnished in Argentina by claims that the church was silent during the military reign from 1976 to 1983 when an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered. Some of the victims' families have condemned him for not taking a public stance. "Bergoglio has not cleared his name yet in Argentina. There are many things to which he has a moral obligation to respond," says Estela de la Cuadra, whose sister was "disappeared" in 1977.
He has also been criticized by those who say his talk of the poor today is not genuine. While liberation theology, which championed the poor but was also entwined with Marxist politics and armed insurgency, took root across Latin America, Bergoglio stood apart from it, earning a reputation as a right-winger.
In his interview with the Jesuit magazine, he addressed some of his past mistakes: "My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.... I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems."
While Catholics hailed those statements as proof of courage – a man able to learn from mistakes – it did not ring true to all. Rubén Rufino Dri, a philosophy professor at the University of Buenos Aires and a former member of the Priests for the Third World, says Pope Francis is using the poor as part of a discourse to strengthen the Catholic Church in Latin America. "He's a great actor, trying to make us think this is a revolution. But he is not humble. He is simply leading the Vatican's attempt to win back the streets in Latin America, where popular left-wing governments and Pentecostals here have taken power and followers away from the church."
'Fun' to be a Catholic again
Another point that might seem incongruous to observers today is Pope Francis's rise as a media darling from his austere – even shy – style in Argentina. Suddenly he makes headlines for making impromptu telephone calls and writing letters. He phoned Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food, to speak about rural farming, and wrote to the cofounder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist.
Mr. Scalfari had written in the pages of La Repubblica what he'd like to ask the new pontiff, and the Vatican informed him he'd hear from the pope. The journalist says he was disappointed by the official response and expected the pope to offer no more than a pro forma three-line note. But he was taken aback when his housekeeper called him to say he'd received a nine-page letter from the Vatican signed by hand, "Francesco."
In the letter – which the newspaper published – and in a subsequent interview with Scalfari, the pope said that people, even nonbelievers like Scalfari, must abide by their own conscience. Scalfari considered the words courageous, typical of the free-thinking style of Jesuits: "To open up this kind of dialogue with nonbelievers is saying something."
Scalfari says he does expect a revolution from a man who loves Dostoyevsky tomes and Fellini films. He wrote after his interview what he thinks makes Pope Francis "revolutionary": "Half Jesuit, half Franciscan, perhaps a union never seen before."
The Jesuit half has to do with the politically and financially powerful religious order's intellectual rigor and practical zeal in engaging with the needs of the world through education, science, astronomy, and medicine. The pope's Jesuit roots are seen as a transition from the denominational insularity of Pope Benedict. But the tempering Franciscan side has everything to do with humility before God's creation, especially the poor, the sick, the needy. He told the Jesuit magazine America that the church needs more "nearness" to the people and that he views the church as a "field hospital after a battle."
The pope's appeal has gone far beyond the intellectual, from Jon Stewart who said on his "Daily Show" in September "I love this guy!" to comic Chris Rock who tweeted that Pope Francis might be the "greatest man alive" and Elton John, who wrote in the Italian edition of Vanity Fair that "Francis is a miracle of humility in an era of vanity."
In some ways, Mr. Tornielli, the journalist, says, this pope is no "novelty," as there have been simple, humble, and pastoral popes in the past. When he became pope in 1978, John Paul II was also a rock star of his time. "But [Pope Francis] is perceived by public opinion as a novelty, because a lot of people around the world were looking and waiting for a new positive message," he says.
That could be why Laura Raggi, a university student studying biotechnology, waited with other youths as Pope Francis ended his trip to Assisi outside the Santa Maria degli Angeli basilica, the same church where an ill St. Francis chose to die. Teens and college students were sprawled across the lawn outside the church, listening to Christian rock bands, munching on picnics, and tapping on iPads and iPhones.
She seemed embarrassed as she talked about her faith in front of her friends. She rarely attends church, except on holidays, and has long criticized the church for dogmatic stances on gay marriage or hypocrisy about wealth and poverty. She said she isn't sure how much the pope will fundamentally change things. "I don't know, I don't know," said Ms. Raggi, adding that she does know he seems unlike either of the other popes in her lifetime.
And she surprised herself when she teared up as the pope passed, kissing the faces of ailing children and their parents. "He accepts all people," she said. "He transmits joy."
For all that has been said about the pope only setting a new tone, not new policies, a style change is substantive change, says Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert and author. The church has suddenly moved from being the consummate scold to a place with open arms for anybody. As Mr. Reese put it: "It's fun to be a Catholic again."
• Jonathan Gilbert in Buenos Aires, and Jim Bencivenga in Venice, Fla., contributed.