So why is Pope Francis smiling? For that matter, how did a 78-year-old man with only one working lung become perhaps the most radiant, powerful and humane figure on the global stage? It’s a paradox, but as much of the world has become less identified with organized religion, the leader of the most organized of religions is more popular than ever.
Whether he’s cleaning the feet of the homeless, dialing up strangers for late-night chats or convincing a self-described atheist like Raúl Castro to give a second look at the Catholic church, the pope who took the name of a nature-loving pauper is a transformative gust.
This puts him directly at odds with the Republican leadership, and the Koch brothers, who have funded a group that recently accused Pope Francis of “being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations.” Speaker John A. Boehner may find that he’s getting more than he bargained for, inviting the pope to become the first pontiff to speak before a joint session of Congress in September.
Francis’s predecessor, while a cardinal, once signed a letter saying homosexuality was “an objective disorder.” This pope would rather focus on the millions of poor clinging to a thin lifeline than talk about people’s sex lives. He speaks truth to power on Armenian genocide, on a Palestinian state, on the Islamic nihilists who behead people of other faiths.
But for all of that, something else explains why the world is so enamored of this pope. Long after we’ve forgotten what his position is on Catholic doctrine, we will remember the serenity of Pope Francis — his self-deprecating lightness of being.
His smile is just shy of goofy; it’s embracing, certainly not the tight facial clench of the seasoned diplomat. Rather than hide behind the trappings of power and empire, he projects a sense that he’s an average man who’s in on the joke. He’s the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. Anything he says is parsed and taken apart for larger meaning. And yet, he shrugs and laughs, the body language behind the most memorable line uttered by a pope in our time: “Who am I to judge?”
Just after he was named pope, in a gathering of the Vatican elite who had selected him, he looked at the thicket of clerical power and said, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done.” He smiled. They laughed. In March 2013, humor took up residence in the corridors of St. Peter’s Square, and has never left.
“I was speechless,” Rabuffi told the Vatican newspaper, “but Francis came to my rescue, saying what happened was funny.”
In March, the pope visited Naples, a wonderful city, its ancient warrens torn apart by mafia corruption and poverty. He challenged the violent Camorra, calling for an end to “the tears of the mothers of Naples.” In words that only a former bouncer could use, Papa Francesco said, “Corrupt society stinks.”
Last year, he was asked about his secret to happiness. He said slow down. Take time off. Live and let live. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Move calmly through life. Enjoy art, books and playfulness.
Sadly, his reign may be less than five years in all, he predicted. As one orthodox cardinal told Mr. Allen, the author, “Bergoglio won’t be here forever, but we will.” Not true. The Vatican Spring of Pope Francis will outlive many a mortal in church vestments.