Pope Francis shouldn’t be extraordinary. But in a world desperate for compassion, kindness and inspiration, he is.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 12, 2013

It is a sad state of affairs to find Pope Francis on the cover of Time as the magazine’s Person of the Year.

Across the land, people are gaga for this man who is a champion of the poor, who preaches compassion and tolerance, who holds and kisses a disfigured man and washes the dirty feet of female prisoners.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Seriously?

Are we so beaten down by the greed, corruption, deviance and narcissism in our culture that we’re going to name a holy man Person of the Year for acting like a holy man?

What next? A major award to water for being wet?

We must be absolutely starved for inspiration when we celebrate this man for the simple, humble act of doing his job. In fact, that’s exactly what we are. Desperate for the mercy, kindness and forgiveness personified by Nelson Mandela or Pope Francis.

The Francis effect is palpable everywhere I go, across the region and across religions.

“He’s a good guy!” said a Lutheran I talked to on a school playground.

“He seems like a really good man,” said a Baptist usher at the Kennedy Center. “I really like his message, even though I’m a Baptist.”

“Finally, you have someone good,” said a Jewish friend who feels sorry for us embattled Catholics.

The other day, James Searby, a Catholic priest at St. Charles Borromeo in Clarendon, was pulled into a lively conversation about Pope Francis in an Arlington County coffee shop with a Buddhist and an atheist who also happened to be waiting for their cups of joe.

“That wouldn’t have happened before,” said Searby.

During the Year of Faith celebration at the Vatican, this little boy spontaneously joined Pope Francis on stage and refused to leave his side. (Courtesy of YouTube/Vatican)

In that way, Searby said, Pope Francis is the embodiment of his Twitter handle: @Pontifex, Latin for bridge builder.

Did you happen to see the photos making the rounds on Facebook that compared Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, sitting in the same spot in the Vatican?

Pope Benedict had those red Prada shoes poking out from under his cassock. He wore a gold embroidered, fur-trimmed stole, a gold ring and a diamond-and-ruby-encrusted cross. The throne looks like it’s right out of a Versace ad: gold, tall and with fat, gold cherubs holding up each arm.

But Pope Francis? He’s no Bishop of Bling. He’s wearing black pants and black shoes. The throne is a simple wooden chair, the ring silver and the cross iron.

And then it comes out that instead of knocking back a glass of wine in the evenings with his Vatican pals, this pope dresses in disguise at night and roams the streets of Rome ministering to the city’s homeless.

No wonder his poll numbers are through the roof: a 92 percent approval rating among Catholics in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. He’s hotter than Miley Cyrus on Facebook.

How can you not love this guy? And that brings me back to how sad it is that Pope Francis is such a phenomenon.

Why is he so dazzling?

Because we live in a culture that has largely accepted greed and bad behavior as the norm. And I’m not just talking about the Catholic Church, which has been beset by a long-running pedophilia scandal that has driven congregants away in droves.

We wallow in a world of Kardashian and Honey Boo Boo. We feast on snark, scandal and scorn.

We ho-hum our way through one jaw-dropping scandal after another. A congressman buying cocaine? A Senate staffer hoarding child pornography? A police officer running a prostitution ring with runaways? They’ll be out of the news cycle quicker than a Lady Gaga outfit change.

And when faced with a moment that should speak to the triumph of the human spirit — Nelson Mandela’s memorial service — we instantly muck it up with a faux selfie scandal soaked in a side of deaf translator jokes.

We hear all the time about pastors who own Rolls-Royces and private jets, who preach the gospel of prosperity and choke their wives and sexually assault children. They keep collecting people’s money because they tell folks what they want to hear.

They don’t challenge us to be our best selves, to show compassion to the homeless or the poor or people who don’t come from the same place we do.

So instead, we try to wash ourselves of the world’s sins now available to us on 4G with cute kitten videos and baby pics to make ourselves feel better. But that isn’t going to do it.

We need virtue. Generosity. Kindheartedness.

Why is Upworthy — which blasts out tear-jerker videos that go viral on Facebook — so popular? Because our souls are starving.

And even though Pope Francis is just doing his job — a man of the cloth showing humility, compassion, tolerance and love — he challenges all of us to stop and try harder, to be better, even when it’s difficult.

It will be a righteous world when Pope Francis isn’t so special.

Twitter: @petulad. E-mail: petula.dvorak@washpost.com

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