As a practicing — but manifestly imperfect — Catholic, I am pleased that Time magazine has named Good Pope Francis its 2013 Person of the Year. Also cheering is the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, which asked people to rate their feelings — "very positive," "somewhat positive," "somewhat negative" or "very negative" — toward the pope and the Catholic Church.
Not surprisingly, Francis, with positive feelings from 57 percent of those polled (34 percent of whom rated him "very positive") and only 5 percent negative (barely 1 percent rated him "very negative"), is much more popular than the church he leads. The less impressive scores for the church — the American leadership of which had too often been more concerned about limiting institutional damage control than relieving the agonizing pain and damage children experienced under the care and protection of the church and its abusive priests — were 36 percent positive and 17 percent negative. The Catholic Church is indeed fortunate to have this pope as its "human face."
What is the key to his appeal? He is faithful to church teaching. The words may be the same, but the music is much different.
He accepted, and personally drove around the Vatican, the "gift" of a 30 horsepower, stick shift 1984 Renault with 186,00 miles on it. His "limo" is a Ford Focus. He eschews the luxurious papal apartments for simple quarters where he reportedly makes his own bed.
He speaks to and for the poor, teaching us that an economy exists to serve human beings and not the other way around. He corrects our "idolatry of money" and the false promise that "trickle down" economics would miraculously cure poverty. He calls himself "a sinner" and opens loving arms to those, including the divorced, gays and lesbians, who have been marginalized by church authorities. But these items just describe, not define, what makes Francis exceptional.
For that, I turn to evangelical Protestant Michael Gerson, a columnist and former White House speech writer and adviser for President George W. Bush. Few experiences are more unwelcome for a writer than to have to quote, at some length, a colleague. But that's what I have to do to try to understand the magical appeal of Francis.
Earlier this month at Georgetown University during an event sponsored by the school's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, Gerson offered these thoughts on the pope and the poor: "The reason that Francis is so powerful ... is because he talks about Jesus and because he acts like Jesus." Gerson's other contributions: "Pope Francis is a troublemaker," a characteristic, he noted, the pontiff shared with the founder of his faith who "wasn't very popular with church and state in his own time." He added that there is "nothing more dangerous than a troublemaker with a plan" and that "a church that looks like this would transform the whole world." I obviously could not have said it better, or as well, myself.
We are learning once again this holiday season that the best things in life are not things, and that, yes, Francis is both Catholic and Christian.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.