Since ascending to the papacy in March, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has managed to surprise and impress the religious and irreligious alike by living a brand of faith seldom seen on the public stage.
Pope Francis insists on carrying his own bags, living in a simple apartment and cooking his own supper. He has largely shunned the papal Mercedes-Benz in favor of a 5-year-old Ford Focus.
One of the earliest acts of his papacy was to wash and kiss the feet of a dozen young prisoners, two of them girls, at least one of them a Muslim.
But the pontiff’s appeal has not been solely stylistic. It has also been a matter of substance.
This is, after all, the pope who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” gay people.
And who criticized Catholics as narrowly “obsessed” with abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. And who called his church to be “for the poor.”
And who said God loves atheists, too.
Tellingly, the pope has not — yet — sought to change any bedrock teaching of Catholicism.
Still, his vision of a more compassionate and inclusive church has won him rave reviews from across the cultural spectrum.
Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston University, called him “a breath of fresh air.”
Columnist Michael Gerson described him approvingly as a “disruptive force.”
Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” said, “I love this guy!”
Chris Rock tweeted that “the new pope might be the greatest man alive.”
It is a shower of unaccustomed approbation that should leave Christians, well … a little embarrassed.
They — we — should ask what it tells us that a pope models humility, inclusion, unpretentiousness, concern for the poor and nonjudgmental, small “c” catholic love — and people are surprised. Indeed, it generates headlines around the world.
What it should tell us is that people are not used to seeing those virtues from people of faith. Their praise, then, amounts to a stark indictment.
Let’s consider for a moment the washing of the feet.
Though Francis broke with tradition by including prisoners, women and non-Christians, the ritual itself is an old one based in one of the more poignant incidents in the Bible.
The book of John recounts how Jesus, in the hours before his crucifixion, decides to teach his disciples one last lesson. He kneels before them and washes their feet.
People call this an act of humility. If you are a Christian, that word is not nearly strong enough for the idea of God incarnate, the Creator of Creation, the Author of Everything, wiping dirt and camel dung from the feet of these often dull-witted fishermen — and then telling them explicitly that He is setting an example He wants them to follow.
Take care of one another. Serve one another. And, for God’s sake, love one another.
It is an example of selfless service — faith as obligation, not license — that seems wholly alien to much of modern American Christianity.
There, when people speak of “faith,” it often means some pious politician likening poor people to stray animals.
Or some Bible Belt town organizing to keep the Muslims out.
Or some preacher preaching that he prays for President Obama to die.
Or some pundit using God as his excuse for condemning people by the millions based solely upon who and how they love.
Small wonder Americans who seem increasingly disenchanted by faith and polls, like the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, find the influence of organized religion to be waning.
Then we see this new pope declaring the dignity of the poor, the inclusion of the marginalized, the denial of self, the infinity of God’s compassion, and people are surprised by this new thing.
But the very fact that they are surprised speaks volumes.
Because isn’t that what faith was supposed to be all along?