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Catholics Embrace Pope Francis' Simple Gestures


Some other news, in Vatican City today, Pope Francis is being formally installed in a solemn two-hour Mass. Heads of states and sovereigns from throughout the world are attending that Mass. In less than a week, Francis has made himself known to the Catholic world and beyond for direct and simple words and gestures.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, he's made a pretty positive first impression, including on many Catholics who've been sharply critical of the last two popes.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pope Francis ended his first Sunday greeting from his window overlooking the square, sounding more like a parish priest than leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Have a good Sunday and have a great meal. The crowd of pilgrims and well-wishers broke into cheers and applause. Monique Martinek, the 21-year-old student from Germany likes the sound of the new pope.

MONIQUE MARTINEK: I think he's a very nice person. He seems to be very, you know, close to the people. He's mode of speaking, you know, it's a very nice man. It's very human.

JANE ORAVEC: I was happy that he was a Jesuit.

POGGIOLI: Jane Oravec is an Australian who lives in Connecticut. She says Jesuits question traditional ways of thinking.

ORAVEC: Whether he'll allow everyone to question too much, I'm not sure, but at least he'll be open to the thought process.

POGGIOLI: Vatican watchers pointed out that in his meeting with media Saturday, Pope Francis made a silent blessing, acknowledging that not all were Catholic or believers. They say it signals a new openness toward other religions and to the secular world, which the last pope had seen as one of the church's major adversaries.

PAUL COLLINS: I think there's a kind of an electric atmosphere around within Catholicism at the present moment.

POGGIOLI: Paul Collins is a writer, a historian of the papacy and a Catholic who is closely listening to the new pope. He's impressed by his choice of words, his stress on forgiveness, mercy and charity and that he does not wear the traditional trappings of the pope monarch. Collins has no illusions that Francis will immediately say yes to contraceptives, make priestly celibacy optional or ordain women priests.

COLLINS: But what he is going to do is change the emphasis within Catholicism, shift the emphasis away from a focus on power, influence, politics, money, to the people, the poor, the marginalized and the fact that the church essentially exists to proclaim the message of Jesus, who was a man who had nowhere to lay his head, as the Gospels describe it.

MARYLYN HATTON: There's more hope now than there's been for 60 or 70 years.

POGGIOLI: Marylyn Hatton is a member of Women Ordination Worldwide, an organization that promotes women priests. She's well aware that Francis is a conservative in doctrine, but she's sure he's open to dialogue even with women.

HATTON: If you're coming from a framework of love and justice, that's far better than an authoritarian one and I think, in time, the focus will go off all those things that we're concerned about, but it will come out in another way in terms of equality for women and we will be heard in a way that we wouldn't have been heard in an authoritarian hierarchical courier.

POGGIOLI: Even some of the harshest critics of the Catholic hierarchy, activists for the protection of children against predator priests have been impressed by Francis' openness and desire to be close to the faithful. Ann Barrett Doyle is co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an organization that tracks sex abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.

ANN BARRETT DOYLE: Absolutely, we're going to give him the benefit of the doubt, but we are looking for signs that he is going to really make child safety a priority. And I think its fine to have high expectations of him as well.

POGGIOLI: There's another aspect of this first pope from the global south that is endearing him even to the secular world, particularly in South Europe now being buffeted by the eurozone crisis. In past interviews, Jorge Mario Bergoglio voiced sharp criticism of what he called economic and financial terrorism and, quote, "the tyranny of the market," unquote. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.