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Pope Francis' common touch, uncommon influence

  • Pope Francis is seen on a portion of the cover of Time magazine's 2013 Person of the Year issue.AP

  • Dec. 11, 2013: Pope Francis waves during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Pope Francis has been selected by Time magazine as the Person of the Year.AP

Even I, a deeply flawed but still striving Roman Catholic, did not realize the true impact of Pope Francis on his church and his world until a few weeks ago, when a little girl, possibly four years of age, toddled up the center aisle of my church and plopped down on the cushioned chair reserved for the priest who was saying mass.

Before her mortified mother could collect her and drag her back to the hard-wood cheap seats, the priest (no fool, he) held up his hand and said, loud enough for all to hear, “Let her stay. If Pope Francis allowed it, how could I not?”

The priest, of course, was referring to what has now become one of several iconic moments of this already-historic papacy, when a boy took it upon himself to walk onstage where Francis was speaking. He hugged the pope’s leg, inspected his pectoral cross, sat on the papal throne. Francis responded with the bubbling caramel smile that has become the trademark of one of the planet’s most interesting, and misunderstood, inhabitants.

Francis wants his church to serve, not strut.

His selection this week as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is only the latest evidence that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has immutably impacted the Church in a startlingly short nine months. 

His public gestures – kissing disfigured visitors to the Vatican, lofting newborns with the endearing awkwardness of a non-parent, washing the feet of prisoners – may have been carefully staged, but they reveal the genuine character beneath the flowing white robes: Francis wants his church to serve, not strut.

He has made his concern for the poor – and hailing from Latin America, Jo knows po’ – his keystone and, predictably, paid the price of being misconstrued. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, his first solo papal exhortation, Francis was widely quoted as deriding capitalist economies. Yet his complaint, a close reading would reveal, is that the pursuit of wealth, in and for itself, has become a competing religion. What parent in the now-infamous 1%, would not counsel his or her child that having money alone is not proof of success, but using it wisely is?

Even before that, Francis stated a simple, if uncomfortable, truth, when he acknowledged that the Church – and he meant the American Catholic Church -- obsessed unduly over issues like abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women priests. To call Americans sex-obsessed is like saying Christmas has become too commercialized. Yet the pope’s truism was instantly and incorrectly interpreted as embracing gay marriage, abortion on demand, and females in celluloid collars. Like past popes, he is opposed to all those things, and will never change his mind about them.

So what does Francis believe? That the world is unfair and that the Catholic Church should be in the business of helping people. That while it is easy to look away from a victim of disease, disfigurement, or war, Catholics are obliged be the first to kiss, caress and concern themselves with such people. That corpulent priests and bishops might benefit from getting out of their limousines and walking among the people they are supposed to comfort.

Francis discomforts us, not because he is a communist who hates money – you’ll notice collections are still being taken up at mass – but because he speaks to our better selves, and calls us out when we fail to live up to our potential.

Little attention was paid to Section 152 of Evangelii Gaudium, in which the pope recommended that Catholics the world over – rich and poor, clever or not, white, black, yellow and brown – spend more time reading the Bible. 

Here is something that few people know: Francis rises at an inordinately early hour to spend time, alone and unrecorded by TV cameras, reading scripture, over and over. It is from this quiet, reassuring time that his public persona finds the strength to challenge tradition and rattle the entrenched bureaucracy around him.  

The little girl in my parish who marched up to the altar brought herself closer to God, despite embarrassing her mother. Francis embarrasses us, yet offers an example in himself. A few minutes of lost sleep, in the presence of divine wisdom, might benefit us all. Time’s Person of the Year was probably awake before you were today. Sleep on that.

John Moody is Executive Vice President, Executive Editor for Fox News. A former Vatican correspondent and Rome bureau chief for Time magazine, he is the author of four books, including "Pope John Paul II : Biography."