The new Pope, Pope Francis, is already making a positive impression. It seems that many Roman Catholics appreciate his concern for the poor, his humility, and his non-distant approach to the people of the church.
He is unique at so many levels– first pope from the western hemisphere, first pope from the southern hemisphere, first pope from South America, and first Jesuit Pope. Since such a large segment of the Roman Catholic church is from the Southern Hemisphere, it makes sense to have a pope finally who is also from that area of the world (though his parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina, he grew up there).
What is also encouraging to me is that non-catholics are being inundated with information about the pope and learning about the Roman Catholic church. My father told me that he had never known so much about who the Jesuits were than he does now– with all the news reports explaining what it means that Francis is Jesuit. Since Celeste and I both went to Jesuit schools– both of us to Marquette University, and me to Fordham in the Bronx before that– and now I teach at another Jesuit school– Creighton– we feel a fondness for this pope even though we aren’t Roman Catholic. Jesuits were originally set up as an order of priests to help defend the Catholic church intellectually against the protestant ‘heresies’– but today they are known for their education-focus, their strong academic credentials, and their open-mindedness (some Catholics find them too open-minded!)
And his chosing the name Francis is symbolic as well. St. Francis of Assissi is quoted in protestant circles as having said ‘I share the gospel every chance I get, and use words if necessary’ and famous pictures show him preaching to the birds and squirrels. He was known for his concern for the poor, and so this Pope, in chosing that name, is also identifying with that concern.
Francis has a combination which could be quite winsome for protestants– he is very conservative on social issues, yet he doesn’t at all come across as arrogant or as though he speaks for God. Not that protestants are lining up to join the Roman Catholic Church, but this pope will at least hopefully dispell some of the misconceptions protestants sometimes have about the Roman Catholic Church. Being from Argentina, it is likely he will have a strong focus on Mary, which is always pretty foreign to Protestants, so its unlikely he will blur any lines between protestant and Roman Catholic completely 🙂