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July 31, 2013
Column #1,666
Why is Pope Francis So Appealing?
By Mike McManus

Why did up to 3 million people go to Rio de Janeiro to see Pope Francis? How did he captivate hard-bitten journalists during an unprecedented informal 80-minute press conference on the plane back to Rome?

“He speaks as Christ would speak, and has spoken,” asserted Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council. “And he challenges all Catholics to return to the full living of the faith which is quite simple – following our Lord, being aware we are His disciples.

He emphasizes “taking care of the poor. It wakes you up in North America. An individual here is very comfortable – which is unusual in history. How generous am I being with my time, my resources and my heart in taking care of the needy? That is a standing characteristic of every Christian – those who lived close to Christ down to today’s followers.”

Thus, Pope Francis refused to travel in an armored vehicle, but in an open-sided car, the back seat of which became piled high with soccer jerseys, flags and flowers tossed to him by adoring pilgrims.

He made a point of visiting the poor in the Varginha slum, where he said he would have liked to “knock on every door, to say `good morning,’ to ask for a glass of cold water…to speak as one would to family friends, to listen to each person pouring out his or her heart…How wonderful to be welcomed with such love, generosity and joy!”

He urged each person to “make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices…Only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied!” Thus, he asked the poor to fight for a better life.

He not only pledged that the Church would be an “advocate of justice and defender of the poor,” but in a speech to 1,000 bishops and priests he challenged them not to “keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel.” He set the example by visiting Varginha.

In his final Mass at the famous Copacabana Beach, where one to three million Catholics gathered for World Youth Day, he urged young people to take the Gospel “to the fringes of society, even to those who seem furthest away, most indifferent. The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you,” he said to applause.

At one point, he sparked more cheers from the crowd in the soccer-mad country when he said, “Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup.”

What attracted most press attention, however, were his comments to reporters on the way home. He was asked about the “gay lobby” in the Vatican. At first he joked that he had never seen “the gay lobby” on Vatican ID cards.

When he meets a gay person he said, “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?” He made it clear “The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem…they are our brothers.”

This was stunning at two levels. First, many Catholics and Protestants think the Pope considers himself “infallible,” unable to err. Yet he did not “judge them.”

However, “The Pope is not infallible as a person – but only when he presents a matter of dogma – but that has not happened since 1950,” says Bill May, president of Catholics for the Common Good.

Francis was not saying homosexual acts are OK. “The act of sex between two unmarried persons – homosexual or heterosexual – is always wrong,” May added.

However, that is not how lesbian and gay leaders interpreted the Pope’s comments. They were astounded and delighted. “Pope Francis today uttered some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people,” said Equally Blessed, a coalition of four Catholic groups working with LGBT Catholics.

They assumed that when the Pope said, “Who am I to judge them?” he was accepting homosexually active people – not simply the same-sex orientation.

Pat Fagan put the issue differently. “Sexual temptation is something all men struggle with. You are vulnerable no matter how old you are. We are all inclined to sin.”

Pope Francis had good news even on that touchy subject. He told reporters that if a person sins, and asks for forgiveness, “The Lord forgets…our sins. So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins - denying Christ. And with that sin, they made him Pope.”

Francis is beloved, because he not only loves others, but communicates it with grace, simplicity and credibility.

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