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    Over five years, pope produces major shift in church culture

    VATICAN CITY — Whenever Pope Francis visits prisons, during his whirlwind trips to the world’s peripheries or at a nearby jailhouse in Rome, he always tells inmates that he, too, could have ended up behind bars: ‘‘Why you and not me?’’ he asks.

    That humble empathy and the ease with which he walks in others’ shoes has won Francis admirers around the globe and confirmed his place as a consummate champion of the poor and disenfranchised.

    As he marks the fifth anniversary of his election Tuesday, Francis still faces criticism for both the merciful causes he has embraced and the ones he has neglected.


    With the role of women and the clergy abuse scandal topping the latter list, a consensus view is forming that history’s first Latin American pope may be a victim of unrealistic expectations and his own culture.

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    Nevertheless, Francis’ first five years have been an introduction to a new kind of pope, one who prizes straight talk over theology, and mercy over moral discussion — all for the sake of making the church a more welcoming place for those who have felt excluded.

    Many point to his now famous ‘‘Who am I to judge?’’ comment about a gay priest as the turning point that disaffected Catholics had longed for and were unsure they would ever see. Others hold out Francis’ cautious opening to allowing Catholics who remarry outside the church to receive Communion as his single most revolutionary step.

    ‘‘I have met people who told me they returned to the Catholic faith because of this pope,’’ said Ugandan Archbishop John Baptist Odama. ‘‘Simple as he may be, he has passed a very powerful message about our God who loves everybody.’’

    On Monday, the Rev. Bernice King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s surviving daughter, had a private audience with the 81-year-old pope. Speaking later to the television outlet of Italian Bishops Conference, King called Francis ‘‘a leader and moral voice for the entire world.’’


    ‘‘The words that the pope recalled of my father — those which resonate in his heart, of peace, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of every human being, the centrality of what is human — are truly crucial today,’’ she said.

    Francis has demanded that governments and individuals treat migrants as brothers and sisters in need, not as threats to society. His call has gone largely unanswered in much of Europe and the United States.

    The Pew Research Center found that while Francis still enjoys a consistently high 84 percent favorability rating among US Catholics, an increasing number on the political right believe him to be ‘‘too liberal’’ and naive. Despite all the talk of ‘‘the Francis effect’’ bringing Catholics back to church, Pew found no evidence of a rise in self-proclaimed Catholics or Mass-goers.

    The man formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, emerged on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica as pope on March 13, 2013, and quipped that his brother cardinals had to search to the ‘‘end of the Earth’’ to find a new leader.

    There have been magical moments: When Francis wept hearing the life story of an Albanian priest who was tortured during communist rule, and later made the clergyman a cardinal. When his whispery voice weakened as he met with Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees.


    But when Francis created room for remarried Catholics to receive Communion, a few dozen traditionalist academics and clergy accused him of heresy.

    Four of his cardinals formally asked for clarification. Conservatives in the United States and Europe wrung their hands trying to square how Christ’s vicar on Earth could seemingly condone adultery under the guise of mercy.

    On the issue of clerical sex abuse, Francis set the bar high when he vowed ‘‘zero tolerance’’ for abuse, created an ad-hoc commission of experts to advise him, and publicly pledged that bishops would be held accountable when they botched cases.

    But he scrapped a planned tribunal to judge those bishops and recently shocked even his closest advisers by dismissing accusations of coverup lodged by victims of Chile’s most notorious predator priest.

    Last week, a coalition of Catholic women gathered in Rome to demand he provide women with a voice and a place at the decision-making table in the Catholic Church.

    Francis has appointed a study commission on ordaining women deacons. He has named a woman to head the Vatican Museums. He empowered ordinary priests, not just bishops, to absolve women who have had abortions, and declared a feast day in honor of Mary Magdalene. But no woman heads a Holy See office.