Rarely if ever has a new pope been so immediately popular with the media. With his candid announcements and interviews, Pope Francis has garnered more coverage than most. The Religion News Service summed up the international press coverage noting, “Pope Francis on (Sept. 19) rocked the Catholic Church and surprised the wider world with a free-ranging interview that charted a course away from an institution that’s ‘obsessed’ with a few sexual and moral issues and toward one that is more pastoral, less clerical and less doctrinaire.”

Randall B. Smith, professor of theology at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, said he was afraid this outgoing pontiff’s off the cuff remarks might be misconstrued.

“He talks to people he’s not expected to talk to and says things people don’t expect, not always the things he’s ‘supposed to,’” Smith said. “His desire to reach people explodes out of him so eagerly that even he worries sometimes afterward whether he may have been misunderstood.”

Whether the media considers him refreshingly unguarded or perhaps even naive, Joyce Ann Daniel of Galveston remains a fan of Francis. She has been following his pronouncements carefully.

“He is changing the image of the papacy with his simple, humble lifestyle,” she said. “He brings hope to this world of great challenges: to love the economically poor, to courageously voice for those who have no voice, to love all peoples in the world and to shepherd his flock with holiness.”

She said she sees the pope as more inspiring than controversial.

“The Holy Spirit is surely with him,” she said.

John A. Schmidt, a Galveston attorney and CPA, agreed with Daniel. He believes that Francis is going beyond just words by creating a series of firsts for the church.

“Last month, under the direction of Pope Francis, the Vatican for the first time ever sought parish-level input regarding church teachings on contraception, same-sex marriages and divorce from Catholics around the world,” he said. “This will further his intent that the Catholic Church be, in Francis’s own words, ‘the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.’”

Whether Francis has actually broken from the church’s traditional teaching or merely made a series of casual comments that could lead to changes, he has internal opponents, either way, Schmidt said.

“Despite some criticism from the right wing of the Catholic Church, for he has made decisions that are not pleasing to it, there can be no doubt that Pope Francis loves God with all his heart, soul and mind,” Schmidt said. “He sets a wonderful example for all Catholics in this respect.”

Joan Rust said she hesitated to comment since she wasn’t born into the Catholic faith but instead converted an adult. Still, she said she feels bound to this Pope, who happens to share her birth date.

“I was surprised by my feelings,” she said. “I find Pope Francis to be my pope, the people’s pope. He’s down here in the trenches with us. He can relate and understand our human plight. He is the Holy Father, my good and faithful shepherd, and I am part of his flock. He’s a wonderful inspiration.”

All in all, local reaction to Francis seems to be generally positive.

Smith, the theology professor, said that Francis has struck a resonance in him.

“I really like him,” Smith said. “But I’m biased. I like him, not primarily because he strikes me as so different or humble or for the other things the press says about him, but because he strikes me as a bit goofy. I wish I had a dime for every time that had happened to me.”

Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.

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