Pope Francis is seen more favorably than his predecessors among Catholics and non-Catholics according to recent polls. However, when he visits the United States, beginning Sept. 24 in Washington, he will be greeted by a Catholic community that has been losing members. (Jayne W. Orenstein and Julie Percha/TWP)

Francis’s papacy was only minutes old when he stood at a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square and spoke his first words as pope, “Buona sera” (Good evening), setting off roars from the crowd and prompting longtime Vatican-watchers and church historians to marvel at such an unpretentious greeting from such a high perch.

When Francis reportedly hugged a transgender man with whom he arranged a meeting this year, Catholic media called it a “hug that could change history.” When he told an atheist journalist that people should follow good and fight evil as we “conceive them,” social media roared with approval.

What is it about Pope Francis?

From the first moments of his 2 1/2 years as pope, Francis has triggered powerful emotions among Catholics and non-Catholics alike — often through the simplest of gestures. In Francis, so many see themselves — perhaps projecting onto him what they want to believe.

Francis’s visit to the United States, which starts next week, resulted from a joint invitation from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House ­Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who both describe similarities between the pope’s and their own agendas. Activists on both sides of the abortion and LGBT equality debates, as well as environmentalists and prison reformers, are among those planning public advocacy around a trip they hope will boost their causes. The pope has appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone, the evangelical Christianity Today and the Advocate, which is devoted to LGBT issues.

A man tosses a piece of clothing to Pope Francis as the pontiff arrives for the weekly Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (Osservatore Romano Press Office/via European Pressphoto Agence)

“I’m hopeful if anyone might shift thoughts or attitudes, it might be him,” said Claire Dente, 52, a social work professor who is a lesbian and will be attending a conference about gender identity and Catholicism timed to the pope’s visit to Philadelphia on Sept. 26-27. Dente, a lifelong Catholic, said Francis’s inclusive language “is reminding us of what the real meaning of being a Catholic is — being attentive to people in need.”

Pope watchers see in this young papacy something similar to the response many Americans had to President Obama’s election in 2008. Even as there is rising disapproval of Francis among some conservatives, there is also an undeniable, sweeping affinity, a gut reaction to a new leader to whom we attach huge expectations, they say, even though most Americans don’t know much about Francis. Theories abound as to the reasons.

Does the pope’s all-embracing commentary, which seems to exclude no one, have particular resonance in an increasingly diverse country? At a time when Americans’ trust in our elected leaders is at all-time lows, are we desperate for an institution we can believe in? In an era when terrorism, economic chaos and climate disaster are threats, does Francis offer people hope of rescue with his confident proclamations about what needs to be done to fix the world? Cartoonists and graffiti artists have often drawn him as a caped superhero.

“The world is a mess right now. We’re living in a moment where people are looking for someone with moral authority. And the pope has that, I think, by virtue of his office,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College historian of U.S. religion who has written about the public import of politicians, faith leaders and institutions.

“There is a sense in which we don’t want to be entirely cynical,” Balmer said.

The American public’s relatively uncomplicated perceptions of this pope could change during his first trip to the United States, where 8,000 journalists are credentialed to chronicle his every move in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Polls have shown that Americans know little about the pope, even as those same polls show that a majority say that they like him.

See details on each of the events in the Pope’s visit

“People love the blank slate,” said the Rev. John Wauck, an Illinois priest and former political speechwriter who teaches communications in Rome and has been a papal commentator for years.

Wauck was in St. Peter’s Square the night Francis was picked to succeed Pope Benedict XVI and his name was announced. When Francis came out and said, ­“Buona sera,” the huge crowd went wild in a way that was remarkable to Wauck, a longtime Rome resident.

“I was like, ‘That’s a pretty banal thing to say.’ But people were just rapturous. I took a cab home and the cabbie said his wife was in tears, even though she knew nothing about him,” Wauck said.

Certainly, many progressives see Francis as a hero and ally, but the pope clearly resonates across ideologies. A Public Religion Research Institute poll from August showed that nearly 90 percent of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of the pope, as do 67 percent of all Americans — including 69 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats.

People affiliated with a huge range of causes are planning to attach themselves to the pope’s visit.

Claire Markham, a 30-year-old Catholic who works on reproductive justice advocacy for the progressive Center for American Progress, plans to attend an interfaith vigil and a climate justice rally near the Mall during the pope’s visit to Washington. Although she knows that she and Francis disagree on the sinfulness of abortion, she is convinced that they share a priority: justice for all people.

“People are thirsty to be known and recognized, and the pope makes people feel that way,” Markham said. But how? “He’s a cute old uncle-pope. People want to see him with a lamb around his neck or a clown nose, and that kind of ministry is magnetic.”

It’s common for people who come from different perspectives to see Francis as an ally. This month, Colombia’s largest guerilla movement, the FARC, asked to meet with Francis when he visits Cuba this week, a few months after the pope spoke with Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.

Francis recently announced changes to streamline the marriage annulment process. Conservatives cheered the reforms as a way to encourage divorced Catholics to obey church rules, while liberals saw Francis playing down the idea that divorces are deeply immoral. The week before that, the pope announced that he had expanded the pool of priests who can grant forgiveness for women who have abortions, thrilling opponents of abortion who felt that the pope was highlighting their cause. Abortion rights advocates saw him working to de-emphasize the sin of abortion in favor of forgiveness and the ability to move on.

Jonathan Lace, a Catholic theology teacher in New Jersey who is hoping to see Francis speak at the United Nations, says Francis intended to convey nothing of the sort.

“I think he wants to listen as much as possible, but I think he’s aware enough to know the buck has to stop somewhere,” said Lace, 39, who is generally opposed to abortion but says that greater legal restrictions should be paired with increased health care for expectant mothers — what he sees as a Francis-like perspective

When Francis comments, pundits and Catholics around their dinner tables often disagree about what he really feels. Is he simply trying to bring kinder treatment in the church to groups such as gays and lesbians and those who remarry outside Catholicism? Or is he strategically trying to change church practice sometime down the road?

“I have a grudging political respect for him because, kind of like [I do for] Obama, I feel he must know that change can’t happen in sudden giant sweeps, but in increments,” said Paul Fidalgo, an actor and atheist who has hosted conversations about Francis on a blog about secularism that he runs.

Even by speaking a little more generously, “he starts to slowly, slowly turn the big ship in a different direction which could show dividends not this year, but maybe in a couple of decades,” Fidalgo said.

Meanwhile, the concept of identifying with the pope is new in Catholic history. Until there was television, said Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold, Catholics barely knew who their pope was, or what he said or wrote.

“He was just the guy we pray for, off in Rome,” Pecknold said. “It’s very modern for Catholics to have — I hate to say devotion — but a kind of devotion to the pope.”

Then came Pope John Paul II, the first globe-trotting pope, and now there is Francis.

“Negatively you could say the cult of personality is new to the papacy. Positively you could say the pope is nearer to the people than he has been through all of history.”

Pecknold was speaking of Catholics, but for the public in general, “he’s like a Rorschach test.”

“There’s always an optionality built into everything, he says. He is a master, as all great communicators are, of hitting multiple audiences.” This “studied ambiguity” can be positive, and negative, Pecknold said. “If you have a lot of fears about this pope, he’s ambiguous enough that you can project that fear onto him all the time. If there’s something naturally attractive, you are going to project that onto all his speech.”

Wauck says Francis is an accessible father figure at the helm of one of the world’s largest organizations.

“I suspect it’s a father hunger thing. He’s much more Dad than the aged John Paul [who was sick for many years with Parkinson’s disease] or the professor Benedict. When he comes up and says, ‘Buona sera,’ he comes across as the local priest of the world.”

Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of the Catholic News Agency, said the public is longing for “spontaneity in our leaders.” Bermudez was watching the pope in Rome this week and noticed how he appeared to change his path one day while greeting people at the huge daily audience in St Peter’s Square. There is something powerful about this seemingly minor quality, he said.

“I think this pope has been so capable of going off the script so frequently. . . . It projects an image of a pope that is quote-unquote like me, like us,” Bermudez said. “He gives the feeling that . . . he’s going to connect to my problems, and then he’s going to think on solutions that are common-sense based.”

Whatever those might be, Dente is not sure she cares. “I don’t know what he’s up to,” the social work professor said. “I’m just taking him where he’s at.”

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