Not only was he named Time Magazine's Person of the Year nine months after he became Pope Francis, but he was also declared Person of the Year by The Advocate - the oldest gay rights magazine in the United States - for representing "a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors."
When asked about gay clergy by a journalist, he said, “Who am I to judge other people in this context? Who am I to judge the way other people live? Who am I to be passing judgment?” recalls James Carroll, a noted Church observer and author, in a feature interview airing this weekend on The Sunday Edition.
“Of course, the traditional answer to those questions is, 'You’re the Pope! If you can’t judge, who can?'" Carroll says.
"And yet, he was stepping aside from that role of the person who issues orders, who speaks in an imperative tone of voice, and who leads by command. This is a man who had been leading from the start by invitation, by welcome, and by expressing above all, God’s unrelenting attitude of mercy for everybody.”
Carroll calls Pope Francis a radical, not only for his positions, but his style of leadership.
“He has taken large steps toward changing the way power is executed in the Church. And that’s why I call him a radical, because he has initiated a process that reaches to the grassroots of Catholic life. He wants to hear from lay people around the world,” he says.
“I predict this shift in the way power is exercised is what will make him a radical, leaving behind the questions of liberal versus conservative and all of the things that have divided the church.”
When he was elected pope last March, Pope Francis was known for his humility, modest lifestyle and concern for the poor ... but also his conservatism on matters of church doctrine.
James Carroll says that the Pope’s sudden and surprising open-mindedness has not only been a departure from his predecessors, but also his church and, indeed, himself.
“This is a marked difference from his own more conservative impulses that were on display throughout his career as a Jesuit leader and as bishop, archbishop and finally cardinal of Buenos Aires.”
Pope Francis has shifted the church away from its ancient fixation on reproduction and sexual morality. He has become an outspoken critic of industries that harm the environment. And he has ignited a global debate on the morality of capitalism, with his calls for economic justice and support for the poor.
This is a pope who seems to have more in common with the Jesus who chased the moneychangers from the temple than with the finery of papal vestments.
Carroll sees parallels between Pope Francis and the efforts of Giuseppe Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII, to save Jews during the Second World War.
“Nothing is equivalent to the Holocaust, don’t misunderstand me, but Pope Francis has come into office at a time of massive moral failure within the church. The priesthood’s sex abuse scandal has shaken the church to its core,” he says.
“So Pope Francis comes to office when significant repair needs to take place. Not just saying I’m sorry, but changing the structure and authority, the clericalism that licensed and then covered up the abuse in the first place. So Pope Francis and Pope John XXIII were both responding to a major collapse of church authority, needing to start afresh.
“And I see that happening.”
[Listen to The Sunday Edition's full audio documentary, The radical in Peter's Chair: James Carroll on Pope Francis.]