(RNS) When I see him smiling on TV or on the cover of a magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store, I get the warm fuzzies.
I follow him religiously on Twitter and have a Google news alert set up so I don’t miss a morsel of his latest awesomeness.
The photo meme of him smiling gape-mouthed at a little girl accompanied by the words, “You love Jesus too?!” is my screensaver, and I wear a pendant with a tiny image of him on one side and of St. Francis on the other.
I’m not afraid to admit it: I have a major crush on Pope Francis. And it’s our anniversary! (Well, technically it’s his anniversary.)
It’s been six months since Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, and I’ll admit it wasn’t love at first sight – at least not for me.
I was standing in St. Peter’s Square on March 13 grumbling about the rain and the cold and the crowds when he finally came out to greet us. Like most of the world, I hadn’t a clue who he was and the way he was just standing there, staring down at us with this stunned look on his face … It didn’t’ bode well.
Thank God for second impressions.
He had me at “buona sera.”
Papa Frank, as more than a few of us like to call him, broke with church tradition and greeted the world with the familiar Italian for “good evening,” rather than the complicated Latin script he was supposed to use. He may be the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics but he talks to us like a brother, not a big shot.
Papa Frank is a maverick; an iconoclast. He’s even a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Simply put, he’s lovable. Here are six reasons why:
1) He’s got a great sense of humor.
A day or so after his election, we started to hear stories about how funny Papa Frank is. There’s the story about how he turned to his fellow cardinals after his election and deadpanned, “May God forgive you for what you have done.” Earlier this month, Archbishop Mario Poli, who succeeded him in Buenos Aires told an Argentine news agency that on a recent visit to Rome, Papa Frank joked that he hadn’t moved into the posh papal apartments because he was worried about getting mugged.
He’s genuinely funny and he laughs easily. He moves through life with the felicity of a man who knows that even if he’s the Supreme Pontiff, his life and fate rest in the hands of a an even bigger God who loves him and the rest of us more than we could ever imagine.
2) He’s a hugger.
I vividly recall when, during his first official audience with the world’s media, Papa Frank hugged a reporter. It may not have been as unheard of as when, a few weeks later, he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman during a Maundy Thursday service, but it left an equally indelible impression on me. Also, I was unbearably jealous. I wanted a hug, too.
Papa Frank kisses babies and old people. He orders the popemobile to stop so he can sweep a disabled man into his arms. He invites a boy with Down syndrome to ride shotgun with him for a lap around St. Peter’s Square.
He doesn’t hold his arms open like a diva or Eva Peron – as if he’s gathering adoration unto himself. No, when Papa Frank stretches his arms wide it’s as if he’s trying to give the world a bear hug.
3) He doesn’t just text – he calls.
One of my favorite early stories about Papa Frank was about how he reportedly picked up the phone himself and called the newsstand in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription.
Recently, Papa Frank has started phoning up people who have written him letters. Out of the blue.
Earlier this month, he called a pregnant Italian woman whose boyfriend had pressured her to have an abortion and offered to baptize the baby himself when the time came. In August, he cold called a man in Italy who’d written to him after a series of family tragedies. The letter the man sent had made him cry, Papa Frank told the man. The pope wanted to make sure the guy was OK.
And most of us think we’re too busy to return an email…
4) He walks the walk.
Papa Frank takes his Jesuit vow of poverty seriously. He owns few personal possessions and has eschewed much of the pomp and preferential treatment of the papacy – including chauffeur-driven limousines. On Tuesday, the pope accepted an upcycled white 1984 Renault 4 – a petite, four-door sedan favored by French farmers.
It’s got a stick shift and he plans to drive it himself — inside the Vatican’s 110-acre enclave, at least. I can picture Papa Frank honking, winking and shouting “Ciao!” through the driver’s side window at unsuspecting passersby.
5) He’s got humble swagger.
Humility may be one of his virtues, but Papa Frank is no shrinking wallflower. He’s still the boss, and if he wants to shake hands with parishioners after Mass, or get out of the car in Brazil and stroll with the faithful, that’s what he’s going to do. It may give his security team fits, but the pope follows his heart to go out and be, as he put it, “a shepherd with the smell of the sheep” on him.
The church is meant to serve the world and the poor in particular, not the other way around, he says. And he’s got the Roman Curia, where he is beginning to make significant reforms after years of mismanagement and scandal, in his crosshairs.
6) He doesn’t front.
In the official Vatican yearbook, he chose to be listed simply as “Bishop of Rome.”
He’s effectively issued a church-wide moratorium on bestowing honorifics, such as the title “Monsignor,” on priests.
He’s not fancy. He’s a servant. So are they. We should be, too. So he’s leading by example.
During an impromptu two-hour press conference on the papal jet in July, he answered a question about gay priests this way: “Who am I to judge?”
Papa Frank is one of us – just a pilgrim trying to make his way home (and taking public transportation whenever he can.)
(Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for the Orange County Register. You can follow her on Twitter @godgrrl.)