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The Pope of Hope

The new pontiff’s populist way of shouting down the haters couldn’t come at a better time.

A FRIEND asked whether I liked the new man in the Vatican.

"Is the pope Catholic?" I answered.

Sorry - couldn't resist. But seriously, how could anyone not be taken by Pope Francis?

In comportment alone, the guy is a bracing blast of Alpine air.

You know, the way he rocks plain, white robes instead of jewel-toned, ornate ones. His decision to live in the Vatican's modest guesthouse instead of the 10-room papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. How he put-puts around Vatican City in a 1984 Renault instead of being chauffeured in a luxury Mercedes the way his predecessor was.

"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one," he advised Catholic priests and nuns shopping for new wheels. "If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world."

Well, amen to that!

But there's more than comportment to like about Francis. If you've not read the lengthy, inspiring interview he gave to the editor of a Jesuit journal (easily available online), I can't recommend it enough - whether you're Catholic or not.

It's one of those articles that, when you're finished, make you feel as if it's OK to be a flawed human in search of something bigger than ourselves - even when our steps are fumbling, our answers dubious, our faith imperfect. Even if we're not Christian at all.

"If one has the answers to all the questions," Francis says of those who claim to know God with total certainty - "that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt."

And the heaven above the people of God, Francis believes, must be broad enough to cover every last one of us without exception - even the sinners, since none of us is an angel, including the pontiff himself (who says he is "a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon").

"This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people," he says. "We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."

Now, that's a line I'd like to see on a refrigerator magnet.

Francis, of course, made headlines when he said he doesn't have much to add to the church's discussion about homosexuality, contraception and abortion since the church has basically talked those things to death, to the exclusion of so much else that deserves the Vatican's attention. Like the fact that God cares about the person first.

"Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people," he says. "But God in creation has set us free: It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person."

So butt out, haters. Focus on the person first, not statutes, since, as Francis notes, "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules."

And doing so can cut off the church from "the totality of God's people" - pastors and people together.

"We should not even think that thinking with the church means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church," he says.

Sounds like something that raggedy radical Jesus would say.

In his interview, Francis does not address his church's decades-long sex-abuse scandal, but perhaps he was thinking of it when he said that "the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity."

"I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up."

Perhaps Francis' predecessor felt the same way. But the new pope's populist way of expressing these thoughts has the power to change the way we talk with one another, whether we're Catholic or not. Given how greedy and mean-spirited the world has become when talking about the poor, the hurt and the marginalized (I wonder if the pope has ever read the comments), his messages of compassion, kindness and mercy - dispensed on a global stage - could not come at a better time.

He makes me feel hope.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: RonniePhilly