At the conclusion of a trip to South America, Pope Francis made global headlines Monday with his comments expressing a level of acceptance of gay men as priests. Yet the first overseas journey of his papacy was striking from the outset — not just because of the air of openness Francis projected, but also because of the self-effacing way in which the new pope presented himself.
Francis’s modest style has been evident since his selection earlier this year. When he learned that admirers had installed a life-size statue of him in the cathedral in Buenos Aires, he got on the phone to his hometown with a blunt order: “Get that thing down immediately.” Instead of the luxury vehicles favored by his predecessors — Pope Benedict XVI had a BMW X5 and a custom-built electric Renault van — the new pope has been spotted in a decidedly less glamorous ride: a 2008 Ford Focus hatchback.
In that same spirit, he began his weeklong visit to Brazil with an unusual request. In his public remarks last week after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, Francis said he wished to “knock gently” at Brazil’s door, and “ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.” This wasn’t strictly necessary; long before Francis arrived, Brazil was agog over the pope’s visit. A million or more religious pilgrims were pouring into Rio to see him. In this context, the sight of the pope toting his own carry-on luggage only underscores a modesty that’s becoming a welcome hallmark of his papacy.
The noteworthy comments that Francis made about gay priests — which represented at least a more welcoming, empathetic tone, if not a change in doctrine — were part of a remarkable 80-minute-long press conference aboard his plane. In a world with no shortage of ego or ostentation, Francis’ approachability and humility offer inspiration even to people outside his faith.