Pope Francis 'as real as it gets' in first year


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When the word came a year ago today that there was white smoke above the Vatican, about a dozen Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden gathered around a TV in their motherhouse to watch as an Argentine cardinal emerged onto the balcony of St. Peter's in papal robes.

"We didn't understand any of the Italian and didn't really recognize him," recalled Sister Mary Pellegrino, congregational moderator for the Sisters. But when Pope Francis bowed to the multitudes and asked its prayers and blessings before conferring his own, "there was not a dry eye in the room."

And that impression lingers for many a year later, in what already feels like an era. Pope Francis has captured the world's imagination through his words -- bluntly criticizing church elites, forcefully championing the poor, voicing compassion for gays and others marginalized by church teachings. His actions have also spoken loudly, from choosing modest living arrangements, to embracing a severely deformed man to giving a seat in the Popemobile to a boy with Down syndrome.

"I've waited all my 41 years of priesthood" for a pope like this, said the Rev. Louis Vallone, pastor of parishes in McKees Rocks and Crescent. Father Vallone reads Francis' daily homilies each morning and often works their words into his own sermons.

Like the sisters, Father Vallone saw signs early on that this pope was different, from his modest shoes and ring to his admonition that priests have the "odor of the sheep" and "keep it real."

Francis, he said, "is as real as it gets."

In his first year, Francis has begun shaking up the Vatican bureaucracy. Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said that in his visits to Rome, he can already sense the positive change. "There's a whole different attitude when you walk into those offices," he said.

Francis also has insisted to bishops that they be pastors, not ideologues. And through word and example, he has called on Catholics to be joyful evangelizers rather than dour-faced prescribers of rules.

"His emphasis on the social gospel has energized the church," said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University. "His perception is a very wise one, that if we start out with the very basic gospel message and we follow it, everything else falls in line."

Francis drew millions for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, where he also mingled with the desperately poor and spoke out powerfully on their behalf.

Yet Francis upstaged all the drama of his Brazil visit on his way home in an in-flight interview. Asked about homosexuality, which church catechism teaches is "objectively disordered," Francis didn't signal a change in teaching, but he took a new tone: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" he said.

Francis, in calling for a synod this fall to discuss family matters, has included discussions about legalized same-sex unions and other hot-button topics, such as Catholic couples who contravene church teaching on birth control, divorce, remarriage and cohabitation.

The pope's candid engagement with such topics has resonated particularly with young adults.

"It's a breath of fresh air," said Duquesne University junior Rachel Polinski.

Francis was elected after the abdication of the ailing Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus.

But while Benedict and predecessor John Paul II had emphasized preserving Catholic values against liberalism within the church and secularism without, "suddenly we have a new pope saying enough of that, we're certain enough of our own identity" and "need to reach out to men and women," said John Thavis, author of "Vatican Diaries," a memoir of covering Rome for Catholic News Service.

Pope Francis may have made the cover of Rolling Stone, but he's not the first papal rock star.

Eighty-five percent of American Catholics (and 66 percent of Americans overall) view Francis favorably, according to Pew Research Center. But Francis has not approached the 90-plus approval ratings among Catholics for Pope John Paul II at his peak.

The Pew surveys also show no increase in Americans identifying as Catholic or going to Mass since Francis' election.

Still, Francis is firing imaginations.

"He's shown that the Holy Spirit doesn't make mistakes" in guiding the papal selection process, said Mark Sikora, 43, a telecommunications manager, after noontime Mass Wednesday at St. Mary of Mercy Church in Downtown.

Financial analyst Sean Finneran, 24, said Francis has "strengthened my faith in the papacy, in the leadership of our church."

Whether Francis' influence endures may depend on how many like-minded bishops he appoints -- and priests he inspires.

"A lot of Catholics who have drifted away from going to weekly Mass might start to come back if they see their local pastors raise the flag and start saying the same things Pope Francis is saying," Mr. Thavis said.

Francis has announced he would form a commission to deal with sexual abuse, and in recent comments he claimed the church has been uniquely "attacked" for its handling of abuse.

Mr. Cafardi -- who formerly chaired the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board for protecting youth -- said the jury remains out on Francis' response to abusers and the bishops who enabled them.

"We're not really used to holding bishops accountable in our church," Mr. Cafardi said. "Anything the Holy Father would do in that area would be a sea change, and sea changes don't come easy."


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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