In his short time as pontiff, Pope Francis has shown a refreshingly unpretentious manner. Abandoning Pope Benedict XVI’s gold-embroidered silk and ermine stoles in favor of a simple white cassock and iron cross. Paying his hotel bill after his papal election. Opting to hold his Holy Thursday mass at a prison chapel and washing the feet of inmates, including women and one Muslim. Even in selecting his name, taken for the first time from St. Francis of Assisi, who was commanded by a crucifix to “repair my church.”
These gestures, which have been criticized by some Vatican traditionalists, speak well of the Pope’s personality. They also distance him from his predecessor, whose rigid adherence to tradition reinforced a sense of hierarchy. Francis, by contrast, clearly wants to be seen as approachable and open to new ideas. Whether this portends an era of reform is not yet clear, though there have been signs the new pope will undertake a review of the Vatican bureaucracy. Either way, the gestures have meaning unto themselves: They communicate a crucial willingness to engage with the laity in attempting to bolster confidence in the church’s leadership.
American Catholics, in particular, are eager for change: According to a mid-March poll by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent would permit birth control; 59 percent want women priests; and 64 percent think priests should be able to marry. No one expects Pope Francis to be ordaining women priests any time soon. Nonetheless, his example is opening the door to change outside Rome as well: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, suggested Sunday that the church needs to be more open to gays and lesbians. Dolan’s remarks, though a long way from supporting same-sex marriage, suggest the church, under Francis’ leadership, may hold some surprises after all.