POPE FRANCIS is a little bit like that chatty friend up the street who gives you his opinion on everything, even when you haven't asked.
He is garrulous, joyful, easy to approach (just ask his apoplectic bodyguards who have to keep him from straying off course in crowds) and quite candid about anything and everything.
If he were Jewish and did stand-up, he would have made a terrific addition to the old Catskill circuit.
You might be saying that this is a rather sacrilegious way to be talking about the Vicar of Christ, but his most recent appearances in public almost invite this type of familiarity. Our pope has an unusually casual style, as if his namesake saint had endowed him with the ability to speak soul-to-soul and heart-to-heart with the common folk, transcending the pomp and circumstance of his predecessors.
Much more Pope John XXIII than Pope Benedict XVI in demeanor, Francis speaks the language of the people and, in fact, has been dubbed "The People's Pope." Actually, he is more than that. He is the sound-bite pope.
This is not really a good thing, nor is it entirely his fault. The media are so eager for noteworthy comments from every public figure (even mediocre nonentities like Anthony Weiner) that they hang on every word. This is not the 1960s, where Pope Paul VI had to issue an encyclical on birth control to get any attention, or even the 1980s, where Pope John Paul II had to rack up lots of frequent-flier miles to turn heads.
This is the age of the citizen journalist, where social media can turn anyone into a legend in his or her own mind. So it is not surprising that people who really do have some heft in the world, a president, say, or the head of a religion with billions of adherents, are put under a very close microscope. If he sneezes, it's news.
In this case, we have a pope who does a lot more than sneeze. He gives impromptu news conferences on planes and unlike the few who may listen when E.F. Hutton talks, the world stops what it's doing and lends a collective ear. And then, it goes off and misinterprets whatever he says for the evening broadcast.
Which is what seems to have happened with Francis' most recent pronouncement on gay Catholics. By now, pretty much everyone has heard that the pope made waves when he said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"
Frankly, anyone who has been paying attention to Catholicism over the past decade or so knows that this is not exactly an earth-shaking pronouncement. True, the church has not embraced gay Catholics with complete acceptance of what some still call a "lifestyle" and what most of us have come to understand is an intrinsic orientation. It has consistently said that it faults the sin, not the sinner, which in less-euphemistic terms means that being gay is OK, but engaging in homosexual relations is not. That's because sex has always been about creating life, and so far, the only way that happens is if sperm meets egg. Up until recently, no additional apparatus was necessary.
But I can honestly state that never once in my own 50-some years of being Catholic did I ever hear anyone officially affiliated with the church condemn homosexuals to eternal damnation. That has really only happened with heterosexual divorcees, Friday meat-eaters and Madonna (you know which one I mean). Yes, Benedict did refer to homosexuality as a disordered condition, which quite obviously hurt feelings and was not the most politic thing to say. Still, even Benedict preached for understanding for the marginalized.
Francis is a much better communicator for this mass-media era, and projects a certain type of humility that Benedict had but was not permitted to reveal. The difference between the two men is more a matter of style than substance.
I'm glad Pope Francis has come out with his compassionate, albeit off-the-cuff, comments about sexual minorities. It fits the true mission and, to be honest, the history of the church. Disaffected Catholics will claim that the church has persecuted sexual minorities, but that is about as true a statement as the one about all Muslims being terrorists.
So it is a good thing that Francis has this common touch. It is a good thing that he has reached out, seemingly without design and deliberation, to those who instinctively recoil from the church. This pope is a good man who has a servant's heart and the ability to reach across an acrimonious cultural divide.
He is not, however, rewriting history. And that still means that for Catholics, life is sacred, as is the ability to create it within the holy union of man and woman. Same message, better messenger.