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People’s pontif earns praise from religious leaders

Local Catholics, clergy credit Pope Francis for his humility, sincerity

POSTED: April 20, 2014 12:30 a.m.

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the first non-European pope in 1,200 years in March 2013, he also carried a burden of expectation.

Pope Francis has met that ­— and then some — members of the local religious community say.

“John Paul II and Benedict the XVI, they wanted people to come outside themselves and help others,” said Paul Perez, president of the John Paul II Training Center in Gainesville. “What we get now with this pope is he’s actually exhorting people to do it. He’s not writing theological papers on it, but he’s doing an exhortation.

“I feel that he’s trying to change the church for the better, and he’s doing that, and he’s doing it through example.”

The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics has transformed perceptions of the church, embodying a grace, humility and authenticity that connects with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, say admirers like Perez.

Anecdotes and stories on Pope Francis abound as curious admirers have examined his life and choices: He used to be a bouncer in Buenos Aires. He used public transportation as a Cardinal. He chose a Ford over a Mercedes for papal transportation. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment, forgoing living a regal lifestyle in the Vatican palace for the guest house.

“They asked him ‘Why there?’ and he said the primary reason is because he needs people. He doesn’t like to be alone,” Perez said of his quarters that houses about 40 others.

“He said ‘This place is big enough to house 300 people,’” visiting Dutch missionary Mattheus Uijttewaal said.

“He said — kidding — if he doesn’t live with people he would have to spend a lot of money getting psychiatric help,” Perez said with a laugh. “He said ‘I need community.’”

Supporters of the pope cross all sects of Christianity.

“The Protestants are very into what the pope is saying, which is amazing to me,” Perez said. “I have Baptist friends of mine, and others, who will come to me and say ‘Oh, I follow the Twitter the pope has,’” he said with a laugh.

“It’s amazing. It’s a phenomenon.”

One local pastor who counts himself a fan is Will Dyer, leader of the Young Adult ministry at Gainesville’s First Baptist Church.

The pope’s popularity comes with a sort of “hipness” not often attributed to most 77 year olds. What draws many young people, Dyer said, is his authenticity. When in a break from tradition he washes the feet of women and Muslims, it comes across as sincere and humble, and not as if he is seeking a good photo or branding opportunity.

“The reason people love this dude is because he is so authentic,” Dyer said. “We make sure we look good, and we look hip and we look the part of a ‘polished Christian.’ This is an 80-year-old guy who is just here,” Dyer said with emphatic “here.”

“He’s not trying to put up a front for anybody,” he added. “It’s wonderful.”

His leadership has endeared many to Catholicism, he said, noting that unfettered hatred of the church was a socially acceptable sentiment among many in the recent past.

“And when have you heard him say ‘You should be Catholic?’ Never,” Dyer said.

Fortuitously for the nonprofit John Paul II Training Center, the pope has tuned Catholicism into its primary mission: helping the poor.

“At the John Paul II Center we’ve been very clear about a call to be merciful and to help the poor, and now that Pope Francis is in place, it’s a confirmation,” Perez said. “This is what the church is supposed to be.”

It’s not just a confirmation, but manifestation in the form of increasing volunteering.

“Because of the pope, there’s been more cooperation between us and the church in helping the poor,” Perez said. “He has made a lot of the faithful very encouraged in this call to help the poor, and it’s amazing how many people we have right now from the Catholic church ­— and Protestant Church — and they come here and teach English and all that stuff.”

“He has brought back the idea that God is always on the side of the oppressed,” Dyer said.

Uijttewaal said he recalls the anticipation and excitement in the Hispanic community on March 13, 2013, the day Pope Francis was chosen, witnessing the visible excitement outside the Flor de Jalisco on Atlanta Highway.

“I can remember the day he got chosen, they were all so very proud of it because he’s Hispanic, and it’s one of them who was chosen to be Pope,” he said. “They were very proud of him.”

Fortunately, he hasn’t let them down.

“There’s a saying in the church ‘Preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words,’ and that’s actually often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi,” Dyer said.

“He’s not just riding and speaking, but he’s living the faith of Jesus.”


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