The Pope: Not just for Catholics anymore

CNN —  

An ordained reverend raised as a conservative Baptist admits to having a “man crush” on the guy. A rabbi long-steeped in the climate crisis credits him for mobilizing Jews to action. An imam from Syria thanks him for protecting his family and people.

Pope Francis may be the head honcho of the world’s largest Christian church, but since he stepped into the papacy in March 2013, he’s captured hearts across religious – and even nonreligious – lines.

From his acts of compassion, such as his embrace of a severely disfigured man, to his strong statements on the environment and his forgiveness of those who’ve had abortions, this pontiff has sparked a lovefest among non-Catholics. One self-described “staunch atheist” called the Pope a “cool cat” on Twitter. Plenty others also have spread the tweet love.

The much-touted “Francis effect” extends beyond Catholics, that much is clear. But what exactly draws non-Catholics to this pontiff? We reached out to a variety of people across the faith spectrum to find out.

’Falling in love’

Growing up in a conservative fundamentalist Baptist home and community, Benjamin Corey was taught to be skeptical of Catholics. They were different from him. They worshipped idols, celebrated saints and couldn’t be trusted.

But as he grew, went to seminary and earned several master’s degrees, Corey’s perspective changed. He emerged from his schooling more accepting of others and decidedly on the progressive end of Christianity.

An ordained reverend, he’s taken on pastoral roles in a few churches, most recently as a co-pastor of the Church of All Nations in his hometown of Auburn, Maine, where he served asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At 39, the full-time writer, speaker and blogger behind Formerly Fundie more than respects Pope Francis.

“I’ve definitely got a man crush on him,” he says with a laugh.

Corey wrote a blog post entitled, “10 Reasons Why I’m Falling in Love With Pope Francis.” In it he gushes about the pontiff’s commitment to social justice, his outreach to the marginalized, his condemnation of “unfettered capitalism,” his modest dress, his lack of judgment of those in the LGBT community – and more.

What he sees is “a Pope who looks a heck of a lot more like Jesus than any predecessor in collective memory,” Corey wrote. “I never imagined that I would find myself connecting with a Pope, and even cheering him on, but this is where I have found myself.”

The Pope has encouraged people of all faiths, and no faith, to find common ground, says Corey. He lives “in an apartment instead of a palace” and has been known to “sneak out for pizza.”

And that time when the Pope washed the feet of juveniles in a detention facility? The image will forever be branded in Corey’s mind.

“The most powerful Christian figure in the world was washing the feet of those who are often the most despised in our culture,” he says. “I just love how he’s just a real person.”

A form of pranam

That moment of washing prisoners’ feet also moved Padma Kuppa, an Indian-born Hindu American living in Troy, Michigan.

In Hinduism, she explains, foot touching is a form of pranam, a respectful greeting reserved for elders and others worthy of deep admiration such as priests, gurus or deities.

“You’re saying, ‘I’m humble before you,’” she says of the gesture. And the Pope’s actions suggested to her that he believes “no individual is less than him.”

Kuppa, a 50-year-old IT project manager, writer and mother of two, is a community and peace activist who celebrates pluralism, focuses on interfaith outreach and serves on the board of the Hindu American Foundation.

In a blog post she wrote for the national advocacy group, she praised the Pope’s inclusion of “don’t proselytize; respect other’s beliefs” in his secrets for happiness. She likened his stance to that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called proselytizing “the cause of much avoidable conflict between classes and unnecessary heart-burning.”

Kuppa speaks of the fourfold pursuits of life in Hinduism. They include artha (prosperity), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). But first and foremost, and most important to her, is dharma.

“It has multiple meanings, but for me it means justice,” she says. She’s drawn to the Pope because of his “dharmic sensibilities” and believes he “embodies that pursuit of dharma.”

She says “equality and dharma go hand-in-hand,” and Pope Francis “lifts up those who don’t have fairness.”

A kindred spirit

For five years, Maggie Leonard, a Presbyterian pastor, has served the underserved. She’s an associate pastor at Mercy Community Church in Atlanta, a nondenominational church with a mostly homeless congregation.

No plates are passed on Sundays for offerings where she is. Since she draws a paltry salary, she babysits on the side to help pay bills.

Leonard, 32, sees in Pope Francis a kindred spirit.

Beyond the simplicity with which he lives and in how he dresses, she points to his pastoral care and his commitment to giving people dignity.

She rattles off developments around Vatican City under this pontiff that make him worthy of extra praise: The newly installed showers, so the homeless who flock to the area have a place to wash. The volunteer barbers who show up each Monday to give free haircuts. The Vatican-issued sleeping bags given out to the homeless who increasingly camp out near St. Peter’s Square. The enlistment of the homeless to help pass out prayer books when the Pope gives his weekly address.

At her church, most of the volunteers live on the streets. Members are offered meals, prayer and classes – including art, yoga and writing. The congregation rents space from another church and isn’t able to build showers – but it welcomes people to take birdbaths in its sinks. Volunteers from other local churches pick up and do laundry for the homeless, allowing the church to fill its clothing closet with clean options so no one need leave feeling ashamed.

Like others, Leonard points to the time in 2013 when Pope Francis washed the feet of juveniles in a detention facility. It was Holy Thursday, a day when she says popes traditionally wash the feet of bishops and priests.

A girl asked Francis why he was doing this, Leonard says, and he answered, “Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”

“He doesn’t have to rationalize it,” she says, “because he knows where he’s being led.”

Bridges of understanding

From the get-go, the Pope’s name choice carried special meaning for Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat.

The pontiff’s namesake crossed enemy lines to meet with the sultan of Egypt during the Crusades in the 13th century. While St. Francis of Assisi’s intention may have been to convert the sultan, he instead walked away calling for peace between Muslims and Christians.

“He was impressed by the level of spirituality within the Muslim community and saw something he’d never seen before,” says Arafat, the president of the Baltimore-based Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, which works to bring people together in peace. “It was a transformative experience, and he came back completely against the Crusades.”