He has said that he believes priests should be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep” and he is living that way. He has, pointedly, not moved into the papal apartments, remaining at a cheap hotel where reportedly he eats breakfast with ordinary people. He refuses to take the papal limousine, traveling by minibus instead. More significantly, on Holy Thursday this year, Pope Francis became the first Pope in history to wash the feet of a woman. Not only did he wash the feet of a woman, but that woman was a Muslim. Not only was she a Muslim woman, she was a female inmate at a local prison. He has become famous in Rome as the “chatty” Pope, stopping to embrace children with disabilities. Recently after a kid with Down’s syndrome pointed to the Popemobile, Francis gave him a free ride around Saint Peter’s Square. He has a sense of humor, too. He’s been known to give blessings to groups of Harley Davidson bikers.
These little gestures make a big difference. The Catholic Church may be the last major institution in the world that makes a coherent argument against total absorption in consumer capitalism. It was one thing to hear Benedict XVI talk about the poor — on a golden throne draped in ermine. It’s quite another to hear it from a guy on the minibus who pays his bills.