“Pray for me.”
The words spoken by the new pope, Francis I, in March shocked the world.
“We knew he was a different kind of pope when he asked for people’s blessings,” said Christian Gonzales, the director of communications for the Diocese of Austin.
Pope Francis is a phenomenon. His humble, simple ways coupled with his rock star appeal made him Time magazine’s person of the year for 2013.
Francis is the first Latin American pontiff. He’s from Argentina and has almost as many Twitter followers as pop star Justin Bieber.
The Rev. Chris Downey, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Copperas Cove, called the magazine’s honor a wonderful thing for the church.
“His message of concern for the poor is nothing new. The church has always been there for the poor,” Downey said. “It’s the tone in which he is saying it. He’s engaging with the world.”
Worldwide, there are 1.2 billion Catholics. Within the Diocese of Austin, about 536,000 live in 25 Central Texas counties, including Bell and Coryell.
Lauren Reardon, a Killeen bookkeeper and a Catholic, welcomes the pope’s message of humility.
“He’s down to earth and full of compassion for everyone in need. He practices what he preaches,” Reardon said.
The pope’s manner, termed the “Francis Effect,” appeals to non-Christians, too. Rachel Hulley, a Copperas Cove resident with no particular religious belief, said she hopes Francis will bring change.
“He is inclusive, and that’s the type of attitude that may make people reconsider the Catholic faith,” Hulley said. “Perhaps me.”
The Rev. Adam Martinez of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Killeen shares the same birthday as Francis, Dec. 17. He said the pope’s message is about being connected.
“What he is talking about is the universalization of faith. He loves people and wants them to be real, not fake,” Martinez said.
Like many leaders, the pope has his critics. Radio show host Rush Limbaugh criticized the pope’s first major document, “Evangeli Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), calling it “pure Marxism” for attacking capitalist ideas.
“Pope Francis isn’t the first pontiff to criticize capitalism. He has spoken about the need for economic justice and helping the poor is vital,” Martinez said.
While Mel Folger, a retired engineer living in Harker Heights, applauds Francis’ desire for change, he thinks it may be difficult to achieve.
“A shift in priorities is underway,” Folger said. “But I think it will be a real test for many conservative Catholics to accept it all.”
Yet, changes are happening. The church hired a communications firm to help make the church more efficient. A group of eight Cardinals will advise Francis on the operation of the “Curia,” the church’s administration, and other important issues. He formed a commission to investigate the sexual abuse of children within the church, and the Vatican Bank had its first audit to show the transparency of its finances.
“Pope Francis is genuine and sincere, and the world is responding to him. It’s a beautiful direction for the Catholic Church,” Martinez said.