Among the things that fascinated me in my young life were the objects from Italy that were strewn around my grandmother’s kitchen.
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There were calendars, leaflets, prayer cards, icons, and illustrated books about exotic places such as Rome, Naples, and Pompeii.
One of those items was a small hard-covered book that contained black-and-white photographs of Pope Pius XII, who was elected in 1939, three years before I was born.
On the cover of this book was a profile portrait of the pope, who appeared to be severe if not imperious.
For most Catholics in those days, the pope was a remote figure.
Popes rarely left the Vatican and never left Italy. They were seldom the subject of news stories in American media, and their pronouncements were formal and obscure, comprehensible only to academic minds.
In a way, this almost forbidding atmosphere around the pope seemed appropriate to me, because it went well with the triumphalism that was part of Catholic identity.
My conviction that ours was the one, true Church went beyond the assurance and direction it should have given me; it extended to dismissal of other expressions of Christianity and other religions in general.
I wasn’t alone in that attitude; in fact, my generation was conditioned to think that way.
But over the next six decades, the atmosphere gradually changed.
The warm personality of Pope John XXIII, the influence of the ecumenical council that he convoked, overseas travels introduced by Paul VI, the demystification of the papacy begun by John Paul I, the profound impact on individuals and nations of John Paul II, and the pastoral insights of Benedict XVI—all coinciding with the rapid advances in communications—made the pope more a part of everyday life and made the Church a more open and less formidable institution.
And then he came.
One year ago, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope and began with the simple words “buona sera.”
The unpretentious tone of his first appearance as Pope Francis set a pattern that changed not only the accoutrements of the papacy—where the pope lives, what he wears, what he drives—but, far more importantly, the manner in which the Catholic Church addresses its own members and the rest of the world.
The Church, he says, must resist the temptation to turn inward but instead should go out like the father in the parable and meet those with whom it differs.
The Church, he says, should set an example of showing mercy before passing judgment.
The Church, he says, should take the risk of leaving its sanctuaries to find the poor where they live.
The Church, he says, should administer the sacraments as agents of healing, not as instruments of punishment.
The Church, he says, should think deeply about the place it has provided for women and about its ministry to young people, divorced people, single parents, gay people, and families of every configuration.
People at large, he says, should adopt these same principles of open-mindedness, mercy, hospitality, and justice—should shake off the lure of consumerism and live as though we share rather than own the goods of this world.
Pope Francis has upheld all of the fundamental teachings of the Church, but with his gentle and plainspoken message about how we treat one another he has captured the attention of people around the world in a way that no pope before him has done.
All of us, I am sure, have heard acquaintances—Catholics, non-Catholics, non-Christians alike—remarking that they “really like this pope.”
But in only a year, Pope Francis has given all of us a lot more to think about than the fact that he is humble and accessible and at times even funny.
If he has been the easiest pope to understand, he has been, for that very reason, the most challenging.
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.