On the sixth month anniversary of his election, it may be a good time to look back upon Pope Francis' time in the Petrine ministry. For most people chimney-watching this past March, Pope Francis was a surprise. From all the news reports I heard and read, he was never mentioned as being a papabile, or a legitimate contender for the papacy. Many considered him too old, or not Vaticanized enough. However, six months later, it's clear he may just be the perfect fit for the job.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires to Italian immigrant parents, Francis was someone who few people believed was destined to be pope. He himself planned to become a chemist, but in his 20s entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and was ordained a priest right before his 33rd birthday. The Jesuits are, for the most part, servants of the church. They focus on serving the poor and education. Due to this "grunt work," few of them ever make it high into the Catholic hierarchy.
For those who fail to see the great change that has taken place in Rome and throughout the Roman Catholic Church since March, let’s take a look at some facts. Pope Francis is a man who is much more comfortable living in a small apartment than the Papal Apartments, which can easily be described as a magnificent mansion or a palace. He has been abroad many times, such as for ad limina visits to the Vatican and regional Latin American bishops conferences. But longest time he has spent abroad was for his studies in Germany. This is a man who is not a Vatican insider.
Furthermore, it has been nearly 1,300 years since a non-European has sat in the Chair of Saint Peter, and those few men were either from North Africa, a then Catholic stronghold, or the Middle East. A South American has never been elected. In fact, no one from the Western or Southern Hemispheres had ever been elected before Francis. Never in the 472-year history of the Society of Jesus has a Jesuit been elected pope. There are so many firsts here, it feels like President Obama’s first term.
I can understand the concerns of those who see His Holiness as more of the same. I have read different bloggers call him a “yawn” and many who think they see no change at all in the church. However, Pope Francis is very different from many of his predecessors. He is much more comfortable running his own diocese in Argentina. Personally, I would describe him as grandfather-esque. News stories over the past six months describe his humility, or his down-to-earth qualities (in Latin, the root word of humility, humus, actually means "earth" or "dirt"). He rode a bus with his brother cardinals the evening of his election, and paid his own hotel bill in Rome the day after. Pope Francis has even shocked his own security guards the first time he left the Popemobile during travels around St. Peter’s Square to greet pilgrims in the crowd. He continues to do this nearly every week, giving blessings, hugging anyone who reaches out for him, and even giving souvenirs to travelers.
Even after the honeymoon phase, including the stories mentioned above, Pope Francis continues to be a regular in international news. Whether it is being paraphrased by Russian President Putin in the New York Times or influencing the debate on immigration reform in the European Union, Pope Francis is making more of a splash in the papers than his predecessors. Pope Francis evens seems to be changing the tone of the media — how often are we hearing of the clergy sexual abuse scandal now?
These small details do not mean that we should expect the church to change overnight. If you are waiting for it to change its teaching on abortion, gay marriage, or female priestly ordination, I expect you will be waiting a very long time. However, my expectations for Pope Francis are basic. He is a communicator. He is an evangelizer. We can expect to hear the church's teachings in new ways (for example, check out @Pontifex on Twitter — his English account has just shy of 3 million followers). Hopefully these are more direct and loving ways. The message of the gospel may never change, but the messenger and the manner of delivery may be changing for the better.
If one thing is certain, Pope Francis is certainly not boring. I assume he is already past his honeymoon period in the papacy, if there ever was one. Yet is he constantly making national and international headlines, and nearly all of the time they are positive stories. One need only search “Pope Francis” on PolicyMic to see how popular he is, even among millennials. He is more than an international celebrity or a cultural figure — he is, in fact, a very counter-cultural figure. You can figure this out for yourself if you listen to his message or read his translated homilies. Or you can just follow him on Twitter.