He comforts the untouchables, engages atheists and wades into crowds his predecessors merely waved to, and in doing so, Pope Francis is electrifying the Catholic Church in Italy and perhaps around the world.
The populist pope's insistence on bringing the papacy to the streets has sent flocks teeming back to basilicas and cathedrals in what some are calling “the Francis effect." Inspired by the Argentine pontiff's humble ways, and inspiring acts like kissing the head of a disfigured man, Catholics are returning to the church in droves and clamoring for the chance to glimpse Francis.
“I get up at 6 a.m. every day," said Francesco Atinori, who has worked as a Vatican receptionist for 24 years and lives near St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. "I open my window and am just amazed by people already on the Square for the brief Sunday noon address, and there are even more for the Pope's Wednesday general audience that starts at 10:30 a.m..”
It was at the Nov. 6 general audience that photos of Pope Francis cradling and kissing the head of man covered with tumors due to a genetic disorder went viral.
“That was an incredibly moving moment, one that was reminiscent of the actions of the man whose name this Pope has taken,” said Father Greg Apparcel, rector of the American parish Santa Susanna in Rome. He was referring to the Pope's namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who gave his family wealth to a leper begging on the streets, much to the chagrin of his wealthy silk merchant father..
Such simple, yet powerful acts, together with Pope Francis' eschewing of such trappings as the Popemobile and penchant for showing up unannounced wherever the faithful gather, have made him wildly popular. The appeal of the 76-year-old pontiff, who has made helping the poor, mercy and charity the cornerstones of his papacy, is evident in the sheer number of people attending church and Vatican functions.
A recent survey of Catholic clergy in Italy noted an increase in the numbers attending Mass and confession since the election of Pope Francis, formerly Argentine Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio. The study by sociologist Massimo Introvigne, published Sunday in the Italian daily La Stampa, estimates that in Italy alone more than 100,000 are “returning,” often after decades of non-attendance.
“Personally, I have also talked to several people from home who have been 'away' from the Church for many years,” Apparcel told FoxNews.com. “They are very moved by the Pope’s words and actions, and are asking questions about returning to more active involvement in their faith.”
It's been just eight months since an Argentine archbishop named Jorge Bergoglio was elected to become the 266th pontiff following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. He signaled early on that his papacy would be different, first by washing the feet of prisoners, including a Muslim woman, on Holy Thursday. Vatican tradition would have seen him instead wash the feet of elderly priests.
Since then, there have been frequent illustrations of Pope Francis' common touch, like the photos of him kissing the disfigured man's head, conveyed to the world more often by images than speech.
“He follows the instructions of St. Francis of Assisi, 'Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words,'” said Fr. Thomas Reese, Jesuit priest and author of "Inside the Vatican."
“While his predecessors were also holy men, Francis doesn’t communicate like an academic, but as a pastor,” Reese added.
At St. Peter's on a recent Sunday, faithful in wheelchairs were brought to the Vatican by a lay organization that brings the sick and disabled on religious pilgrimages. Signora Alfina, a nurse and member of the group's Sicily chapter, accompanied her wheelchair-bound 11-year-old “angel,” Maria Grazie.
“Pope Francis embraced and spoke to our disabled in wheelchairs, one by one, as well as all the volunteers, almost 1,000 of us!" Alfina said. "He took his time. He hugged my poor girl and took my hands in his. It was the most moving moment in my life.”
There is reason to believe Pope Francis' appeal extends well beyond the close orbit of the Vatican. Tourists from around the world are also flocking to the Vatican to bask in Pope Francis' warm glow.
“He is like Jesus, the Good Shepherd," said Mary Belle, a New Yorker who recently visited the Vatican and waited three hours in the rain to see Pope Francis. “Pope Francis is showing us what a real Catholic should do.”
Still, amid Pope Francis' positive reviews, many ask if this “springtime in the Church,” as the Church historian Alberto Melloni has referred to it, will last. Some are hopeful he will change church doctrine, others are fearful and still others say he cannot.
“I think there has been a lot of media hype, and when the smoke clears people will understand Pope Francis won't change doctrine," said Maria Teresa Garcia, who is from Barranquilla, Colombia, and visited St. Peter's on Sunday. She believes the church is intolerant of women and homosexuals.
The conservative Italian daily Il Foglio paper, which has criticized the Pope for what it considers a bending of church tenets, published a scathing editorial several months ago under the headline, “We Don't Like Pope Francis.”
Reaction meanwhile to the Pope's Oct. 1 interview with an Italian atheist published in a left-leaning daily was at times anguished.
One Fr. Z blog reader wrote. “I’m afraid with this interview he’s pushed me away quite definitively....It is disheartening to have a Pope who believes fervently in the accomodationist garbage that has wrecked the Church over the past 50 years.”
Rome-based journalist Courtney Walsh has worked with FNC since 2004.