Pope Francis, a New Messenger for the Catholic Church

b_250_0_16777215_00_images_obgrabber_2013-12_c0a9b8a6ad.jpg (VATICAN CITY) --  Emphasizing forgiveness over judgment, and acceptance over orthodoxy, the 266th pope is decidedly different from his predecessors. Pope Francis is a big-tent evangelist for the world’s largest Christian denomination, reaching out to the world in the blunt language of the street. Eager to focus less on divisive social issues such as abortion, Francis describes his church as “a field hospital after a battle.”

“It is useless,” he told an interviewer, “to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” That approach has huge implications for the millions of Catholics who feel that the church long ago turned its back on them. When a reporter asked about the status of gay priests, Francis did not hesitate. “I have yet to find anyone who has a business card that says he is gay,” he said. “If someone is gay who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”

A SHIFT IN TONE

It’s a change in tone, not doctrine. Francis has not softened the Church’s opposition to gay marriage. His church still believes gay sex is a sin. But by adopting a less scolding tone, he has used his bully pulpit to heal divisions rather than highlight them.

On some issues, the church is unlikely to budge. Don’t expect the church to suddenly sanction birth control or abortion. Or that priests won’t have to be celibate or that women will be allowed to become priests.

But Francis has cracked open the door for dialogue.

THE HUMBLE MESSENGER

As the earthly successor to St. Peter, the pope is not just the spiritual leader of the world’s largest faith. He is also, according to Catholic tradition, the keeper of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s why the pope’s heraldic shield features pair of crossed keys beneath a papal crown.

Earlier this month, during a visit to a working-class parish in Rome, he disclosed that he used to be a bouncer. One more of many surprises that sets Pope Francis apart from his predecessors.

His immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, was an aloof German theologian who appeared, at times, to struggle to connect with the wider world. Benedict’s papacy continued a decades-long restoration of orthodoxy, dialing back progressive reforms of the 1960’s, and his personal style reflected that. He favored the ancient pomp and flair -- bespoke slippers, custom-made perfume, and hats that would not be out of place in a Renaissance painting.

Pope Francis has a far more humble approach. His cassocks are plain white. He elected not to live in the ornate papal apartments, preferring instead the simple quarters of the Vatican guest house.

Humility is a big part of his ministry. On Holy Thursday, he washed the feet of 12 female prison inmates. On his first pilgrimage to Assisi, birthplace of his patron saint, he said the Church must strip itself of “vanity, arrogance, and pride.”

He is more approachable than any pope in recent memory, posing with tourists for pictures, embracing pilgrims on the rope line at general audiences, allowing a child to sit on his lap at a public mass.

There’s a pointed message here. For centuries, people have called the church hypocritical because it champions the poor from a perch of such opulence. Pope Francis said he believes the church should practice what it preaches.

“It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car,” he recently said.

The official papal car is now a used Ford Focus. Sticker price: $16,000. He owns a second car too, a 1984 Renault given to him by an Italian parish priest who dropped it off at the Vatican last summer. Appropriately the Renault is papal white.

A POINTED MESSAGE

He has captured the imaginations of believers and non-believers alike, giving the Church’s message of social justice far greater resonance.

Pope Francis has taken public views on income equality and “the idolatry of money” that could win votes at an Occupy Wall Street rally. He is easily the world’s foremost champion of the poor.

Last month he attacked trickle-down economics and “the widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs.” Conservative commentators in the U.S. greeted that message with a sharp intake of breath. Sarah Palin said he sounded “kind of liberal” and Rush Limbaugh called him a pure Marxist, insisting Francis is “dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong.”

Without addressing those critics by name, Francis responded he’s no Marxist. He defended his criticism of trickle-down economics is perfectly valid: ”There was the promise that once the glass had become full it would overflow and the poor would benefit. But what happens is that when it's full to the brim, the glass magically grows, and thus nothing ever comes out for the poor.”

That economic message is in keeping with the doctrines of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the messenger is decidedly different.

Recent polls suggest the world is listening. A recent ABC News/Washington Post survey found more than 90% of Catholics approve of his performance. So do 69% of Americans, regardless of faith.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio