About 20 minutes after Pope Francis was elected, I walked onto the sidewalk in front of our church office. A rattling pickup slowed in front of me. The driver -- a gray-haired man with a bushy beard, overalls and John Deere cap exclaimed, "Y'all gotcherselves a new pope! Good job!" He gave me a thumbs up as he rambled down the street.
The comments about Pope Francis have not slowed down since, and I love it. As the "only Catholic" many of my friends claim to know (I suspect I'm just the loudest, but that's besides the point) they've shared with me how much they love the way Pope Francis is challenging us to embrace simplicity, care for the poor and work for peace.
What is amusing to a Catholic geek like myself is that people think Pope Francis' words are a radical departure from what the church has said and done previously. I can understand why -- we live in a day when information is posted, synced and shared before a sentence has ended. Previous popes have not had the benefit of a Twitter feed or their own smartphone app installed before they took office (it's @Pontifex on Twitter and "The Pope App," if you're interested).
Kids, before there was the interweb we looked to the paintings on the walls of our caves and books to learn. It was rough having to turn pages instead of just hitting "refresh," but our electric bills were lower so that part was cool. Pulling out some of these books that documented the writings of previous popes, I reflected on a consistent history.
For example, if Pope Leo XIII had a Twitter account, he probably would have shared excerpts from his encyclical letter Rerum Novarum ("The Condition of Labor") in which he sought to "define the relative rights and the mutual duties of the wealthy and the poor, of capital and labor" (No. 1). He may have Tweeted a reminder to us all that, "It is one thing to have a right to the possession of money, and another to have a right to use money as one pleases" (No. 19). When Pope Francis challenges us to use our resources for the common good and for the aid of the poor, he's reiterating what Pope Leo XIII wrote way back in 1891.
Maybe you read Pope Francis' Sept. 2 tweet, "War never again! Never again war!" and thought it was ground-breaking for a pope to be so blunt. I hate to disappoint you, but his Tweet was actually an excerpt from Pope Paul VI's address to the United Nations in 1965, which was preceded by the plea, "Never one against the other, never, never again ..." Imagine the CNN panel discussions that address would have sparked.
As for keeping it real and hanging out with the people, I can speak from my personal experience. Last month, watching Pope Francis gather with 3 million people for the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I remembered the World Youth Day I attended when I was 17 in Rome. Gathered in St. Peter's square with 2 million sweaty teenagers and young adults, I remember being moved that Pope John Paul II would spend an evening with such a rambunctious group -- a tradition he initiated in 1987 with the first International World Youth Day held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As he took time to pray with us and answer our questions, I really felt that I belonged to a church whose leader wasn't just a figurehead, but someone who cared about me and my faith.
Pope Francis is, as the kids would say, "legit" and has made it clear that he's brought his own style and spirituality to the Vatican. However, his message -- Christ -- is what popes have been preaching since St. Peter put down his fishing nets in 33 A.D.