How popular is the pope? Perhaps unprecedentedly so. Around the world, 60 percent of people say they have a favorable view of him; in the United States 9 out of 10 Catholics agree.
It's been two years since the former Argentine cardinal was elected by the College of Cardinals to be leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. He hasn't changed the doctrine of the Catholic church or overhauled how it interacts with people, but he has changed how many people perceive it.
So this seems like a good time to step back and ask, what makes him so popular? And if you'd like to be better liked by more people, what can you learn from him?
This might be the most important key to the pope's popularity, and I'll be honest: I didn't figure it out until I'd already written a first draft of this article. A picture is worth 1,000 words, so I ran a Google Image search. In 22 of the first 25 photos of Pope Francis that come up, he's smiling. No joke--in one of the ones in which he isn't, it's because he's puckering his lips to kiss a baby on the forehead.
We live in a world in which almost everyone is trying to find ways to be happier, and the pope comes across as one of the happiest people (certainly one of the happiest world leaders) on the planet. All other things being equal, that has to make him more likable and popular.
Next on the list: the symbols Pope Francis surrounds himself with. No more red shoes like his predecessor, Pope Benedict, wore; no more papal palace--this pope lives in a comparatively small apartment. Even the name he chose upon being elected by the cardinals, Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (patron saint of animals and the environment, and considered "friend of the poor"), had great symbolic importance. Francis said the idea to choose this name came to him when another cardinal embraced him upon his election, and told him, "Don't forget the poor."
This pope seems to talk openly and unguardedly--especially during press conferences he holds while traveling on the papal plane. It's during these events that he's let loose with some of the more controversial (and in many quarters, welcome) statements of his papacy--things like how people don't have to breed "like rabbits" to be good Catholics, and his "Who am I to judge?" comment about homosexuality. It's a lot harder to dislike someone who seems like he's being open and forthright.
He's probably not the first pope to have had a "regular job" at some point before becoming a priest, but the fact that Pope Francis began his career working in a chemistry lab and as a bouncer at a nightclub in Buenos Ares certainly makes him seem more human. More recently, he's done things like calling to cancel his own newspaper subscription in Argentina once he was elected pope, carrying his own bag on trips, and even dropping by a hotel himself to pay his bill.
It's a little sad that this makes him stand out among world leaders and perhaps even among some religious leaders, but the fact that the pope doesn't seem greedy certainly helps his popularity. For a while he was traveling around the Vatican in a five-year-old Ford Focus, and he raffled off gifts--including everything from a four-wheel-drive truck to a Panama hat--to raise money for the poor.
Wait, didn't we just establish that the pope is almost always smiling? Yes, except when he isn't--like the time last December when he told off the Vatican bureaucracy for things like their "lack of compassion," idolatry, gossip, vanity, and greed. It's the rare person who wouldn't offer an "amen" to someone who rails against those kinds of characteristics and behaviors.
Not long ago, the pope was in the Philippines, and he was asked by a young girl who had been living on the streets why God would allow bad things to happen to people like her. Instead of trying to offer some kind of theological explanation, the pope seemed pained to hear her story, and almost ready to cry himself, before saying in effect he had no answer, but shared her tears.
Behind the scenes on the world stage, the pope has apparently been doing things like convincing the United States and Cuba to move toward normalizing relations. But when he focuses on simple, appealing issues and messages that people can't help but support, it makes him even more popular.