Who is Pope Francis? A primer on the pontiff

Pope Francis1
Pope Francis lets fly a white dove in St. Peter’s Square in 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

He was a dark horse in the papal election, a little-known Argentine cardinal who rarely traveled outside South America and whose emergence as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics surprised even the most experienced Vatican-watchers.

Less than three years into his tenure and with his first trip to the United States at hand, Pope Francis continues to surprise.

On issues that represent the third rail of Catholicism — divorce, abortion and homosexuality — Francis has projected a far softer stance than his predecessors, roiling some in the church and winning fans among those who chafed under Catholicism’s inviolable doctrines.

He has criticized clerics who favor luxury over simplicity and vowed to hold accountable bishops who enabled or covered up the sexual abuse of minors. He has invited dissent, urging bishops and cardinals to freely speak their minds as they chart the church’s future.

And he has taken on governments and institutions, blasting unregulated, global capitalism as a blight on the poor and the environment.

More broadly, the 78-year-old pontiff has employed both impish charisma and frank dialogue to enliven a religion at risk of losing followers to more flexible faiths, analysts said.

“I never thought I would see a pope like this in my lifetime,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, who has written extensively about the papacy as a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “He’s changing the priorities and style of Catholicism, and that’s just an extraordinary thing to do.

“To use a secular analogy, he’s rebranding Catholicism,” Reese said. “He’s stressing the compassion and mercy and love of God toward us as opposed to the rules and regulations we’re supposed to be following.”

Read the story at NJ.com (Sept. 20, 2015)

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