The criticism that many Catholics lodge at their church is that priests are out-of-touch with the issues they care most about: namely marriage and parenthood.
Pope Francis, however, has managed to give followers from around the world the sense that he actually understands the challenges of long-time partnerships or the stress that can overwhelm new parents.
He did it again Sunday, when he baptized 32 babies, telling their mothers not to think twice about breastfeeding their infants in the Sistine Chapel, the ornate setting for Michelangelo's famous frescoes and an altogether intimidating place to cause a rumpus.
"Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the infants who will make a noise. Some will cry because they are not comfortable or because they are hungry," Francis told the parents. “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice. Because they are the most important people here.”
It must have been a relief to many new mothers, who can find the challenge of breastfeeding difficult enough, let alone having to do so in public, often under the glare of judging bystanders.
The pope has sparked any number of debates in recent months, from the church's stance on homosexuality to capitalist excess. His latest comments might push him into the perennial battle between those who support breastfeeding in public and those who don't (handing an apparent win to the “pro” camp: After all, if the pope says a woman can feed a child under Michelangelo's frescoes, how can it be argued that she can't in the bleachers of a baseball stadium?)
But the larger point is the running theme of Catholic lay people, like Rita Mesiti, feeling that the man at the top understands them – despite leading the global church. His breastfeeding advice came the day he announced his selection of 19 new cardinals, many from the developing world.
She says she listens daily to what the pope has to say – but not for the theology. “He doesn't speak of theology,” Mesiti says, “he speaks of the problems of family.”
As the mother of 19-year-old twins, she listens to him to maintain hope that her boys, in college, will find work despite staggering youth unemployment in Europe. The best advice he's given so far: make sure to make up with your spouse before bed and never go to bed angry.