There is a new sheriff in Vatican City and, judging by the way the world is embracing the differences this fresh pontiff brings to office, it appears many inside and outside the Catholic Church are gladdened and inspired.
Wearing the name Francis, the change agent of Assisi, he says things the saint himself might have said: "How I would like a poor church for the poor." On Holy Thursday he visited a Roman youth prison, something he did in Buenos Aires as archbishop, to wash (and kiss!) the feet of convicts. This provoked a strong response from some when he washed the feet of a young Muslim woman, a ritual the church's liturgical rules limit to men.*
His decision to live as an ordinary man, even within the privileged confines of Rome, has inspired awe and can be studied by looking at the way Jorge Bergoglio lived outside the clerical "bubble" in the decades leading to his installation: baking his own empanadas, flying coach, and—he might forgive us for the assumption—perhaps ironing his own spartan vestments.
His demeanor, characterized by a simplicity of style in dress and liturgy, reflects an ethos that underpins the Argentine's ministry—he really does believe, to the dismay of some traditionalists, that he is no different than you and me.
This played itself out on one of the biggest stages the world knows. Signaling to the Christian East and all Christians that he is but one patriarch among others, he stood on the porch of St. Peter's Basilica after his election and called himself simply "the bishop of Rome … which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust."
Still, there are things that are not at all new about Francis. Already, he inspires impatience and surprise in those who somehow expected him not to be Catholic when it comes to the family or the unborn, in those who want a cheerleader for their political version of salvation. Media have speculated that he may be open to reversing rules on celibacy, but really Francis is a Catholic's Catholic.
As a non-Catholic observing and leading a flock in many traditions shared with Rome, I'm deeply encouraged. And, as I learn about "Papa Francesco," there's one "new thing" in particular that inspires this pastor: Francis pushes the envelope when it comes to the Sacraments.
As a cardinal in Argentina, Francis encouraged his priests to leave the safety of their chapels, churches, and cathedrals to take the Eucharist, to take Jesus, to the public squares, streets, alleyway garages, and ghettos, preaching the gospel and offering baptism on the spot, with instruction, to those who desired conversion of heart and mind to Christ.
In an interview last winter, then-Cardinal Bergoglio told Andrea Tornielli of Vatican Insider:
Instead of just being a Church that welcomes and receives, we try to be a Church that comes out of itself and goes to the men and women who do not participate in parish life, do not know much about it and are indifferent towards it. We organize missions in public squares where many people usually gather: we pray, we celebrate Mass, we offer baptism which we administer after a brief preparation.
Speaking to his brother cardinals prior to the conclave, Bergoglio took his cues from John's Revelation:
Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.