WASHINGTON – At first, the detail seemed like a compelling if random tidbit: The new pope takes the bus. Then similar stories kept proliferating after Pope Francis’ election last month. His first words as pope were to ask for a blessing before offering one. Hours after becoming pope he called to cancel his newspaper subscription back in Buenos Aires. He chose to live in a guesthouse rather than the sprawling papal apartments. On Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet of incarcerated women and non-Catholics.
These acts are deemed heroic. Young Catholics by the millions are sharing images of Francis’ good deeds. Many fallen-away Catholics are saying the pope’s gestures of humility might bring them back to the church.
But why are a few humble gestures such a big deal? Shouldn’t we expect that the planet’s most prominent pastor would embrace simplicity?
Organized religion is often defined by very specific lists of do’s and don’ts — rules that easily divide people rather than unite them. And here comes Francis and his emphasis on simple religious values that everyone can agree on: Be humble. Help people who are hurting. Treat as equals those with whom we disagree.
It’s hard not to be moved by his spontaneous embrace of a disabled boy in a crowd, his deferential touch of a young woman confronting her future from inside a jail, his desire the night he was picked as pope to take the group bus back to the hotel with his fellow priests rather than be alone in the separate car designated for him. And he does all this in an accessible, unassuming way.
“It’s just a change in tone, but a change in tone can go a long way,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s nice when you’re not hearing constantly about the issues American Catholics have the hardest time with.”
The story of a humble pope also fills a void in a world that thus far knows little else about Jorge Bergoglio. Church experts and the cardinals who picked him say his theology is similar to that of his predecessors, so any expectation of serious change at the top of the world’s largest Christian denomination may be premature.
The new pope has yet to respond to long-standing allegations that he failed to speak up aggressively for victims of Argentina’s rightwing dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s. The Washington Post has reported that he never reached out to sexual abuse survivors of a priest under his leadership. The fact that there are big questions about his past makes the fascination with Francis’ small gestures even more striking.
Among the Francis fans is Brian Spadora, a law student at Seton Hall University. “The elevation of a Jesuit to the papacy is enough to do what years of prodding by my own mother couldn’t,” he wrote in an essay for CNN. “Francis seems intent on refocusing the church toward its duties to serve those in need.”
Francis is not the only Christian figure aiming for simplicity these days. The desire for a more modest faith practically defines today’s young Christians, particularly evangelicals. They followed a generation focused on building more and bigger churches, gaining power for the church in Congress and on Wall Street and on selling a wide range of religious-cultural products including the “Left Behind” series, “Veggie Tales” and a hipster T-shirt for anything Jesus may have thought. Today’s evangelical icons are grungy pastors who say American Christianity has become too comfortable in its middle-class existence. They argue for a more sparse life centered on basic goals such as helping the poor and showing love.
Shane Claiborne is one of the evangelical figures preaching the virtues of paring back. People have become turned off, he says, by high-end churches and studies showing that congregations’ spending on salaries is at an all-time high.
Institutional Christianity “in some way represents opulence in a world where people are dying because they don’t have a mosquito net that costs $3,” said Claiborne, who founded a spiritual community in Philadelphia called the Simple Way. “People are not looking for Christians who are perfect but those who are honest.”
Before picking the new pope, cardinals said one of their top priorities was finding someone who could clean up real and perceived corruption in the curia, or Vatican bureaucracy. The Vatican bank in the past year has been mired in scandal and investigated for money-laundering.
A Pew Forum poll released this past week showed that 84 percent of U.S. Catholics had a favorable view of the new pope, higher than any rating Pope Benedict had during his papacy. “It seemed like Benedict was always emphasizing ‘We’re the Catholic Church and you’re not,’ ” said Amy Butler, a blogger and pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington. “Now Francis is doing these things that invite the rest of us back in instead of just talking about Catholic Church teaching on birth control.”
Notre Dame’s Cummings says the bar doesn’t have to be very high. She was wowed just by seeing photos of the new pope holding hands with and appearing to kiss the cheek of Argentina’s female president, with whom he has clashed over same-sex marriage.
“I was trying to think of the last time I even saw Pope Benedict with a woman,” she said, noting that the image is powerful for young Catholic women. “I don’t think Catholics are looking for a pope to have a cup of coffee with. But he’s showing a desire to meet people where they are, and we haven’t seen that in a while.”
Where Catholics are, all surveys show, is deeply divided on many issues, such as religious freedom and stem cell research. And that may not be solved by this pope.
“This period [of enthusiasm] can keep going because this is who he is,” David Cloutier, a theology professor at Mount St. Mary’s University, said of Francis. “But if people start getting their hopes up about him changing teachings or something — you can never tell, but that seems mistaken.”
Michelle Boorstein is a religion reporter for The Washington Post.