Pope Francis’ turns 79 on Thursday.
Despite his bold stance on hot-button issues, many Catholics in the US and the rest of the world seem to like Pope Francis, widely seen as more modern and “with the times” than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down in 2013.
Here’s a look at the reasons he’s become so popular.
1. He’s the “People’s Pope”
More than his predecessor, Pope Francis wages a war against inequality. Calling inequality the “root of social evil,” he routinely pressures governments to stop widening wealth gaps and help the poor.
People are also praising the pontiff, dubbed the “People’s Pope,” for his simple lifestyle and refusal to move into the papal palace. He’s also rumoured to be sneaking out of the Vatican at night to go talk to and give money to the homeless.
He has also been praised in recent weeks for calling on every parish in Europe that had the necessary finances to take in a family of refugees. The Vatican is already hosting two families. During his speech to Congress, the pope also called on politicians to empathise with refugees and welcome them into the US.
2. He’s accepting of people the church previously shut out
The pope is making huge strides to modernize a church set in its ways.
In one of his most controversial and celebrated comments, the pope said, “If someone is gay, and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
This statement marked a clear departure from the view of his predecessor, who called homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil,” according to The New York Times. It also cemented his perceived open-mindedness toward people who had previously been harshly condemned by the Catholic Church.
Previously difficult to obtain, annulments allow people to end their marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church and thus remarry within it.
3. He goes out of his way to respond to people who reach out to him
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has been known to respond to many of the people who reach out to him. He either responds to their letters or, sometimes, calls them. For example, he recently replied to an Argentine woman who wrote to him asking him to intervene in favour of her son who has been on death row in Texas for 19 years.
On his trips, the pope also often stops his motorcade to greet people along the way.
The latest such occasion was during his visit to Washington, D.C. During the papal parade, he called for a 5-year-old girl who had gotten through the barriers and was being escorted back to be brought to him so he could hug her and accept her letter.
4. He’s reconciling science with the Catholic Church
The relationship between the scientific community and the Catholic community has not always been an easy one — and still isn’t. But Pope Francis has taken an important step to start mending it.
First, he declared Catholic beliefs to be consistent with evolution and the Big Bang theory, saying “When we read the creation story in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining that God was a magician, with a magic wand which is able to do everything, but it is not so. He created beings and let them develop according to internal laws which He gave every one, so they would develop, so they would reach maturity.”
He then sent shock waves through the scientific and Republican communities when in June he delivered an encyclical on climate change that called on citizens and governments to do their parts to curb emissions deteriorating the planet.
The pope subsequently tweeted that the Earth looked like “an immense pile of filth.”
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 18, 2015
5. He’s a relatable, soccer-loving pope
Celebrated for his humility, Pope Francis turned down a chauffeured limousine service to take to bus instead when he was an archbishop in Argentina. This is one among many things that also make him relatable to the public.
Pope Francis also disclosed what jobs he held before becoming archbishop. They included a janitor and technician in a chemical lab, and one particularly stood out — a bouncer at a bar in Buenos Aires.
A big soccer fan, Pope Francis celebrated San Lorenzo, his favourite team, when they won the Argentinian soccer championship a few years ago and met up with the players.
6. He’s aware of his power
Pope Francis is aware of his status and power and uses them to try to better tense political situations and ongoing conflicts.
When the pope visited the Holy Land in 2014, he extended invitations to Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a leader of Argentina’s Muslim community, Omar Abboud, to come pray with him in an effort to better interfaith friendships.
An iconic picture was then taken of the three of them walking away together after the pope prayed at the Wailing Wall.
The pope is also said to have played a significant role in the reconciliation between the US and Cuba.
7. He’s no stranger to selfies
As President Obama mentioned during his speech before Pope Francis addressed crowds at the White House, the Pope was celebrating many firsts. He mentioned Pope Francis was the first pope from the Americas and made his first visit to the US. Obama also said Pope Francis was “the first pontiff to share an encyclical to a Twitter account.”
The pope has not only been known to tweet but in general has embraced the technologies of the 21st century and social media to reach his followers and spread his message.
He also regularly poses for selfies with young people who come out to see him.
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