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JP Grace: So far, Francis is earning reputation as 'People's Pope'

Apr. 01, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

"Non dimenticare i poveri!" So whispered a fellow cardinal to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, just after he'd been elected as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who had resigned his office. "Do not forget the poor."

Back home in Argentina, the new pontiff had become known as a crusader for the rights of the poor and the marginalized. He had given up residing in the archbishop's palace and taken a simple apartment. He could be seen riding the bus and the subway and was said to have cooked his own meals.

The admonition to remember the poor, he later confided, set him to thinking about St. Francis of Assisi, who had given up a life of pleasure and material well-being to wander the hills of his native Umbria region in Italy preaching repentance and conversion to the gospel.

He had reportedly been mulling over taking the name of Hadrian VII, as the last pontiff of that name, the VIth, was a Franciscan pope who suppressed the Jesuits. A nice touch of irony, then, to show the world that the Jesuits had sprung back from the suppression and now had a pope of their own.

No, forget that, something told him. Why not "Pope Francis?"

So to the joyful surprise of the Italian people, for whom St. Francis is a national patron saint, and the world's Catholics, this Argentine son of immigrant Italian parents was announced from the logia of St. Peter's basilica -- in Latin, of course -- as Pope Francis.

In the days that followed, Pope Francis kept the surprises coming.

Barely elected pope, he went to the lodging he had rented for the conclave and paid his own bill. Invited by Vatican aides to step into a waiting limousine, he strode right past the luxurious vehicle and hopped onto the bus idling at the curb to take some of the cardinals back to their residences.

Only one day after becoming pope, he celebrated Mass at the Church of St. Ann, which actually serves as a local parish for Vatican staff and even Romans who live near the Vatican. Mass over, he stood outside the front door greeting congregants, some of whom kissed his cheek or offered hugs which he warmly accepted. Just like many a pastor, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, after Sunday services.

Two days later he outdid himself by celebrating a Mass inside the Vatican just for the workers who sweep the floors, clean the toilets, tend the gardens. This time, once Mass had ended, he did not exit the chapel but sat quietly in the pews among workers who were lingering for personal meditation.

Why hadn't popes behaved like this before? No one could say, but everyone suggested that what Pope Francis had done was breaking new ground.

Then on Holy Thursday he had himself delivered to an Italian prison to say Mass and wash the feet of 12 inmates.

A reform pope then? Absolutely. And many Catholics were ardently hoping Pope Francis was setting a tone that cardinals and bishops would have to follow -- even if shamed into it. Lavish living was now "out." Service to the poor and getting close to the people in general were "in."

Pope Francis was proclaiming it almost daily in both words and action.

Time will tell whether Pope Francis can bring greater transparency and urgency to the campaign to end the clerical sexual abuse scandals. Or get a grip on topsy-turvy Vatican finances.

However, his no-nonsense, down-to-earth style bodes well.

John Patrick Grace covered the Vatican from the Rome bureau of The Associated Press in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is currently a book editor and publisher based in Huntington. He also teaches the Life Writing Class.

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