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Six Months Into His Papacy, Pope Francis Shatters Convention

Pope Francis jokes with the crowd at the Basilica of the Madonna of Aparecida during a papal visit to Brazil in July.
The first sign that Pope Francis was going to be different from other popes came as he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome after his selection last March: The 76-year-old pontiff wore a plain white robe, devoid of the elaborate silk vestments that come with the job.

That modesty was a preview of how the Catholic Church's first Latin American pope would go on to break the mold set by his predecessors in his first six months as the leader of the world's largest Christian church, some 1.2 billion members strong.

As a bishop in his native Argentina, Francis visited slums, rode the bus, and cooked his own meals. Now, as pope, he has rejected the luxurious trappings of the papacy -- choosing to be driven in a Ford Focus instead of the bulletproof Popemobile, moving into a simple house on Vatican grounds instead of the Apostolic Palace, carrying his own luggage, and replacing the golden papal chair with a wooden one.

He uses Twitter to urge his followers to help the poor and he recently posed for a "selfie" -- a self-portrait taken with a mobile phone -- with young people who were visiting the Vatican. The picture went viral.

Pope Francis even picks up the phone and, unannounced, calls ordinary worshippers who have sent him letters in search of comfort and words of hope.

Any of this would be enough to distinguish Francis as probably the most humble and accessible pope in modern history. But he has differentiated himself even more radically for the way he has embraced and reached out to people who have long been marginalized, condemned, or harshly judged by the Catholic Church, including homosexuals and atheists, and by his call for the church to be more inclusive of women.

Pope Francis blesses Harley Davidson bikers outside St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Pope Francis blesses Harley Davidson bikers outside St. Peter's Square in Rome.
For many, the most startling example of this shift in official church tone was a comment he made to journalists on the papal plane in July. He answered a question about his position on homosexuals not by citing Catholic doctrine that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity," but by saying, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge him?"

Theology professor Thomas Groome, who chairs Boston University's department of religious education, says Francis's embracing tone could have a profound effect because the Catholic Church's vast global network of hospitals, clinics, schools, and poverty programs makes it the world's largest single provider of education, medical, and social services.

The Catholic Church "has a major influence on the quality of human life across our planet," Groome says. "So to change the tone of Catholicism as significantly as he is changing it isn't just of interest to Catholics. My Jewish neighbors across the street are equally taken and in some ways being influenced by the shift."

Catholic Church historian James Hitchcock says Francis is so keen to spread his pastoral Jesuit philosophy -- a branch of Catholicism that emphasizes acts of charity and social justice -- that he often speaks impulsively, without the aid of prepared remarks.

The pope kisses the feet of a young offender after washing them at a Mass at an Italian youth prison.
The pope kisses the feet of a young offender after washing them at a Mass at an Italian youth prison.
"In the past, statements would be drafted very carefully," Hitchcock says. "They would be looked over probably by various people to refine them. He has a much more freewheeling style of operation."

That lack of inhibition was evident in Francis's willingness to sit for a lengthy interview recently with "La Civilta Cattolica," a Rome-based Jesuit journal, in which he spoke bluntly about how the church has become "obsessed" with issues of abortion, gay marriage, and birth control, and would "fall like a house of cards" if it didn't find "a new balance."

Boston University's Groome says the interview confirmed a growing feeling that Francis is "a breath of fresh air."

"Many of the things that we were beginning to intuit about him -- his concern for poor, his insistence that the church not be a chastising father but a merciful, caring mother, that mercy and compassion mark the life of the Church rather than enforcing rigid laws -- a lot of the inclinations we've had over the past six months in many ways are confirmed in this interview," he says.

Interest in the Francis interview was so huge that editors had to remove the "comments" feature from the article, according to Timothy Reidy, the executive editor of "America," the Catholic magazine that published the English translation.

The positive attention Pope Francis is generating for the Catholic Church could help breathe new life into a church that, like many others, is struggling with declining membership. Rome's rigid opposition to things like contraception has been at least partly blamed for that.

The pope greets a young girl outside the Vatican.
The pope greets a young girl outside the Vatican.
But three Catholic experts interviewed for this story noted that Pope Francis has only spoken about changing the church's focus, not its basic teachings.

Church historian James Hitchcock says it's a matter of asking, "Do you approach people with a spirit of sympathy and say, 'I understand where you're coming from, I want to help you,' or do you say, 'Look, you've got problems, you'd better straighten them out?' Clearly, he's not going to give a stamp of approval, he's not going to say the homosexual lifestyle is acceptable. It's a question of what is the best means of approaching this."

Reverend Mark Morozowich, the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Washington, D.C.'s Catholic University, concurs. "The teaching of the church [will] not change in many respects, with regard to the basic fundamentals of these issues," he says. "But you have a pastor, a pastor who's speaking very clearly about how we reach out and deal with people."

Indeed, Francis said in his interview that church doctrine on things like gay marriage and birth control were "clear." And one day after the article was published he denounced abortion in a speech to Catholic doctors.

Still, Morozowich thinks this pope is going to create positive change, and not just in the Catholic Church. Francis is setting an example for all people to "try and live that good life," he says -- to "build a world where we recognize one another as brothers and sisters.”