In the year since Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose his official title as pope, his papacy's path has echoed the nuance of his very first decision to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint of peace and poverty.
“How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor,” Pope Francis told reporters last year of the symbolic reasoning behind his name.
Pope Francis’ humble name choice as he assumed such an influential title is a contradiction that served to foreshadow his approach to his role and his vision for the Roman Catholic Church.
But beyond Francis' embrace of those less fortunate, his brief tenure as pope has also sparked optimism among members of the flock who at times felt marginalized and alienated from the church's top brass – a surprising and mostly welcome change from the past, scholars say.
“He has distinguished himself through his distinctive style,” says Rev. Kevin O'Brien, vice president of Georgetown University's office of Mission and Ministry. “This pope has the style of a pastor who wants to be with his people.”
While most popes will talk the talk, it appears that Pope Francis will also walk the walk.
Days after taking on his new role, it was announced that Pope Francis would not take residence in the spacious papal apartment set atop the Apostolic Palace. Instead, he opted for a more modest two-room suite in the Casa Santa Marta, where he had been staying since the conclave. He also followed similar suit by passing on other luxuries offered to the pope, including a chauffeured limousine and a personal cook.
It is this rejection of the ostentatious components of the papacy and a return to more simplistic roots of the Catholic faith that has propelled Francis into celebrity status, beyond perhaps what any other pope has known.
“He is pastor-in-chief for the world and his major theme is mercy,” says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Between corruption charges that recently have plagued the Institute for the Works of Religion, otherwise known as the Vatican Bank, and the ever-looming shadow of the sex abuse scandals, the Catholic Church seemed to be slumping toward obsolete extinction. Many began to see the church as a tired establishment whose pious traditions outdated its congregations.
But Francis has brought a breath of fresh air to what some see as a doctrinal dinosaur. And though ultimately the letter of the church's principles haven't changed, observers say its spirit has. Francis has softened its edges, tempered its vehemence and restrained its scorn, thus extending its survival.
Much of his success has been based on Pope Francis being not only a people person, but a people’s pope, and it is his ability to connect with and understand others that made him a world phenomenon in the short span of a year.
“He is less 'systematic' than his immediate predecessors,” says Kevin Irwin, former dean of The Catholic University of America's School of Theology and Religious Studies. “He engages audiences in a very effective, invitational way.”
O'Brien says Francis’ openness toward all people has been the catalyst for a new enthusiasm for the Catholic Church among members and nonmembers alike.
“Pope Francis has broadened the outreach and appeal of the Catholic Church to all people,” he says.
According to a Pew Research poll published earlier this month, 60 percent of the general American public view Pope Francis favorably, while inside the Catholic Church, his popularity is even greater. Eighty-five percent of American Catholics rate Francis favorably, while a mere 4 percent of American Catholics have an unfavorable opinion of the pope.
The poll also showed a general agreement among most American Catholics, including both regular Mass attendees and more infrequent worshippers, that Francis symbolized a “major change in the direction for the church.”
“The pope’s openness to the world and to every person has invigorated the church, particularly among the young,” O'Brien says.
And it's true.
Be it posing for a selfie with a group of teenagers or playing with a little boy who ran onto the stage during a Vatican celebration, Francis has managed to maintain refreshing likability among the youth, which is a clear shift from many of his predecessors.
Other marginalized groups in the church also have found a compassion and empathy in Francis that hasn’t been demonstrated by past Catholic hierarchy. The gay community, in particular, found a new attitude of love being directed toward them this year when Francis responded to reports of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican.
“If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge,” he said, in a stunning break from how past popes addressed the issue.
“Even to use the word 'gay' rather than using the word 'homosexual' makes it clear that the pope is pretty comfortable about us and the issues that we face, and that’s pretty refreshing,” says Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Catholic Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender advocacy group.
Though Duddy-Burke doesn’t see large crowds of the LGBT community returning to Catholic congregations, she says there is a “cautious optimism” about their future in the Church.
“What’s most encouraging is that he’s talked so much about the need for consultation and collaboration,” she says.
But there is a wide spectrum of opinion on the pope’s attitude toward gays, and not everyone in the LGBT community is satisfied. Some feel that Francis’ move is slightly deceptive due to the fact that no doctrinal changes have been made.
The Catholic Church does not deem homosexuality a sin but says homosexual acts as "contrary to the natural law" because the act cannot result in what the church deems to be the sacred "gift of life." Therefore, Catholic doctrine dictates those who are gay live a life celibacy.
“My litmus test about the success of this new approach is whether it makes a difference in real people's lives. It has certainly made people look at the pope in a new way,” GLAAD spokesman Ross Murray says. “He sounds more open, but I think it remains to be seen if this will translate into a doctrine that no longer calls LGBT people 'intrinsically disordered.'"
Despite the lack of doctrinal changes, it is undeniable Francis has precipitated significant progression in reinventing a seemingly archaic religious establishment.
But some say more of that reinvention lies in the way the media portrays the Catholic Church.
“There's no doubt that Francis has changed the public image of the church,” says Rev. Stephen Fields, a theology professor at Georgetown University. “In capturing the media's imagination, he has shifted their agenda from the sexual abuse scandal and the perception of the church as merely a moral policeman.”
Irwin, of Catholic University, says Francis has left journalists swooning and created a more welcoming tone to potential parishioners.
"He capitalizes on the capabilities of the media who publish his daily homilies, weekly audience talks and statements," Irwin said. "He is continually invitational, moving many to give the Catholic Church a second glance or a second chance."
A second chance appears to be exactly what Pope Francis has offered the Catholic Church. But O'Brien says the pope ultimately will be remembered for reminding “the church about its fundamental mission to care for people.”
Like most leaders, Francis has emphasized this through his own example: By dismissing the very things that other popes have used to distinguish themselves, he has endeared himself to many and made his life his message.
"By his words, actions, example, even body language, Francis … makes real the mercy, compassion, and concern of God, for his fellow human beings," says Georgetown scholar Fields.