Why is the Pope so Popular?

The secret of success that has brought Pope Francis into good graces with evangelicals.

[Editor's Note: There's no doubt that Pope Francis has taken the world by storm since his election. He was recently named TIME's person of the year, and today the beloved pontiff turned 77. In honor of his birthday, we are reposting this article examining why he's become so popular.]

A few months after his election, the newly elected pope met with Jesuit students of all ages. In a brief Q&A session, a little girl asked Francis if he wanted to be the pope. He made a few jokes before getting serious and flatly saying, “I didn’t want to be pope.”

Ever since his election, Pope Francis has taken a series of actions that seem to be very, well, un-popelike: He used public transportation as a cardinal, he lives in smaller quarters than he could and he asked for a blessing before giving a blessing to the crowd which gathered in St. Peter’s square on the day of his election.

What is stranger than Pope Francis’ actions has been evangelicals’ reactions. Never before has a pope become so widely accepted by Protestants and evangelicals. In a recent Op-Ed for Christianity Today, Timothy George called the new pope, “Our Francis, Too.”

The pope is popular with evangelicals not because he’s doing what they already do, but rather because he is doing what they are not doing but wish to begin doing.

As you look at the stories surrounding the new pope, it’s very difficult to dislike him. Through his actions and his profound, visible humility, Pope Francis has demonstrated a Christ-like character, not only Christ-like rhetoric. And this has brought him respect across the spectrum of Christianity.

Every pope in the Catholic Church’s past has had a mastery over Catholic rhetoric—the pope always says the right thing. But Pope Francis has decided to lead with his actions.
Before delivering his message at the Holy Thursday Mass (an extremely important mass in Catholic tradition), Pope Francis spent time on his knees, washing the feet of young women incarcerated at a nearby prison. This was the first time the pope has ever washed the feet of women—not to mention that one of them was a Serbian Muslim, which is another break in papal tradition.

This type of servant leadership is precisely what has connected the new pope to our younger, more cynical generation. He is breaking the rules in the right places: where they shouldn’t exist.

As Pope Francis accepts his role, a new generation of evangelicals accepts theirs. As young evangelicals have rejected the megachurch and the televangelist and embraced a more rugged, grassroots Christianity, these actions by the pope fit perfectly. He has refused to live in the massive papal quarters in Rome and has chosen to live in the guesthouse, instead. One of his first actions as pope was to cancel his newspaper subscription at his home in Buenos Aires.

These small things go beyond his radical, public acts of humility and reveal his dedication to simplicity. Evangelicals have grown in their love of the simple things. Public evangelicals like Shane Claiborne and David Platt have fascinated crowds and sold hundreds of thousands of copies of books about these principles. As Pope Francis leads in simplicity and continues to dedicate himself to living in this way, it will only increase his popularity.

The pontiff’s simplicity carries over to his language, too. Catholics have always had trouble connecting their message to young people. Many who grew up in the Catholic Church struggled to connect with its liturgy and message. To a newcomer, it’s often overwhelming.

But Pope Francis’ language is accessible and concise, which works perfectly with the Twitter-speak of young Christians like me. His quotes are simple and yet profound: “The Church is a love story, not an institution” and “War is madness. It is the suicide of humanity.” As many reject the King James Bible and the complex, irrelevant theological language of the past, they embrace the succinctness of Pope Francis’ words.

It is important here to realize that the pope is popular with evangelicals not because he’s doing what they already do, but rather because he is doing what they are not doing but wish to begin doing. As I scour the landscape of evangelical leadership (authors, speakers, mega-church pastors), it is difficult to find a man like Francis. In the age of best-selling books and church auditoriums that rival arenas, we do not see many leaders take the route of Pope Francis. And perhaps this is why we enjoy him so much: He is leading us in a way we are not leading ourselves right now.

Pope Francis is popular not for what he does, but how he does it. He’s popular not for what he says, but how he says it. These are character issues we are seeing displayed; he is adopting an attitude, not an office.

I pray we would not be afraid to be led by a servant like Pope Francis. For if we cannot be led by a servant, how can we be led by Jesus?

I see Pope Francis respected because he reminds us of Jesus, which unfortunately is a bit of a surprise when seen in public religious leadership. He is a breath of fresh air. He did not see the office of pope as something to be grasped, but instead made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, which is an imitation of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). This adoption of servanthood has turned critics into followers. Because it’s difficult to be critical of someone who serves the poor and spends time with the victims of the world’s worst violences.

As evangelicals move ahead, I pray we would not be afraid to be led by a servant like Pope Francis. For if we cannot be led by a servant, how can we be led by Jesus?

Oftentimes I see myself less like Francis and more like Peter, refusing to accept the servant leadership of Jesus by trying to convince Him not to wash my feet. In a day where our churches grapple for power through money and numbers just as much as our governments, may we adopt the words of Christ from Matthew 20: “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…”

Pope Francis knows what Jesus knows and what I so often forget: True power comes from true humility, and true leadership comes out of true service. Let’s not just celebrate this pope; let’s imitate him.

21 Comments

Chris VanDyke

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Chris VanDyke commented…

"Let’s not just celebrate this pope; let’s imitate him." ...He's simply a man. Let's neither celebrate him nor imitate him. Rather, let us celebrate & immitate the ONE who can empower all to walk in the light: Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

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Sal Jr Castellanos

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Sal Jr Castellanos replied to Chris VanDyke's comment

Chris, i believe it was St. Paul who wrote, "imitate me as i imitate Christ." We are to BE examples to one another. Good character is worthy to be imitated.

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marg

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marg commented…

Chris
I think you missed the point. We must be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart so the world can see Christ reflected in us. Otherwise the One we must imitate is hidden from view. In the Bible we are called to be light to the world if Christ is to be present to the world. That is why Pope Francis’ way should be imitated for by imitating him we make Christ visible and that is what influences others to walk in the way of Christ.
Just look at the world today and tell me who really makes Christ visible? Jesus needs us to make Him visible and present in this broken world. Blessed Mother Teresa is a perfect example of showing us the love and mercy of Christ in the millions she cared for. To your statement “let us neither celebrate him nor imitate him” I say REALLY!. We are to be a witness for Christ in what we say and what we do that His light may shine through in a darkened world.
The Gospel call us to imitate Christ and it is in the way we live that the Gospel of Jesus gets proclaimed. That is how we speak Christ to a world that does not know him. So yes Pope Francis should be celebrated and imitated because his actions not only resemble Christ but lead us to Him.

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Buffalo Jones

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Buffalo Jones commented…

As a Catholic, I have this to offer:
This Pope exemplifies what Catholics strive to be like. This Pope does not ask to be celebrated, he asks that we celebrate Jesus and understands his role as being an individual who helps guide a church toward that ideal.

The Catholic Church is not a perfect body, nor does it claim to be one. It is plagued with the same corruption, scandals, and sin as any other organization. This Pope has been long-awaited by many Catholics and I hope the rest of the church follows his lead. Unfortunately, this is not yet the reality. Change takes time and Pope Francis is an excellent start in returning to the word of God.

Many of the problems in the Catholic church are at the local level. Priests go on their own tangents which are not inline with the vision of the church and often become power-hungry. When anybody speaks up against them, they are outcast. This scenario is present in many, many churches - both Catholic and Protestant. This type of scenario only hurts us and I pray that one day the righteous will overpower those who are acting against righteousness. It is a fallen world and that may never be a reality.

With all that being said, Pope Francis is a welcomed change and the type of individual who I prayerfully hope will inspire the young and old alike.

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Matt Vaughan

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Matt Vaughan commented…

I wrote this about the Pope's popularity recently, and how his popularity in the media is at someone's expense: http://muchvaughanted.blogspot.ca/2013/07/robbing-peter.html

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Caesar Sinatra

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Caesar Sinatra commented…

I really hope the whole prostitute scandal blows over. He seemed like such a good guy before it all came out, and "better" popes have done far worse shit in the past..

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