From the time he stepped onto the Vatican balcony high above St. Peter’s Square, it was clear there was something different about Pope Francis.
He wore a plain white robe and a simple cross and offered a casual greeting.
In the year since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Francis, the light shining on him has not diminished.
He has been called the rock star pope and dominates headlines about the Catholic Church.
He attracted an estimated 3 mil-lion people to a Mass at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro last summer, outdrawing even the Rolling Stones.
“Pope Francis has undoubtedly changed the way Catholics and non-Catholics look at the Catholic Church,” said Tony DeGol, spokesman for the Altoona-Johns-town Diocese.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak had a chance to personally greet the Holy Father during a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome in July.
“Bishop Mark has great admiration for Pope Francis,” DeGol said.
The pope refuses to live in the luxury of the papal apartments. He often rides in an open-air vehicle as part of his weekly audience. He eagerly waves to the faithful and kisses babies who are handed up to him.
He is the new, friendly face of the Catholic Church – the pope as pastor.
“Catholics who have been disengaged with the Catholic Church are giving the church as second look,” DeGol said. “I think many of them feel a longing to return, and I think Pope Francis deserves much of the credit.”
DeGol said the pope leads by example and encourages people to be less focused on doctrine and more focused on reaching out and serving those around them.
Bartchak often quotes Francis in his homilies.
Not long after the pope was selected, Bartchak told parishioners at the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel parish in Loretto that the new pope has demonstrated his form of pastoral service by reaching out to ordinary people.
“Pope Francis spoke of the need for all of us to treat those who are lost, or poor or weak with great tenderness and great care,” Bartchak said. “Pope Francis has shown us how to live a God-centered life that is not a burden. It is a source of true joy and happiness.”
Recently, Bartchak said in an interview on the diocesan TV show “Proclaim!” about Lent that “Pope Francis would encourage us to embrace Lent joyfully and not be ‘sourpusses’ about it.”
The bishop continued by saying that Francis would say that the church does not need sourpusses during Lent or any other time.
“Rather, we should evangelize happily,” Bartchak said.
DeGol said Francis and Bartchak have a lot in common.
“Both are simple men who enjoy great peace,” DeGol said. “People respond well to them and relate to them, and their love of God and compassion for others is evident.”
Time magazine chose Francis as Person of the Year.
In many ways, he is redefining what it is to be a modern pope.
Monsignor Timothy Swope, rector of the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel, believes the election of Francis continues the golden age of the papacy in modern times.
He said Pope John Paul II demonstrated a powerful personality to bring challenges to the world stage and Pope Benedict XVI is an intellectual who demonstrates great humility in sacrificing his own papal ministry for what he believes is the greater good of the church.
“The Holy Spirit was looking for a humble person, and Pope Francis is invigorating the church at the grassroots level,” Swope said. “The people like him and what he has done.”
Coming from South America, Francis has a great respect for the poor.
“He pronounces that we all need to follow the Gospel in regard to taking care of the least of our brethren,” Swope said.
Changes in the church seem to be more in tone and emphasis, a fact that has not been lost on other religious leaders.
Rabbi Irvin Brandwein, religious leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Westmont, said he is impressed with the pope’s modesty and with his continuing a positive relationship with the Jewish community.
“He is a unique and outstanding individual who brings hope and energy to not only the Catholic people, but also to the people of every other religion,” Brandwein said. ”His leadership and philosophy are admirable and the Jewish people are delighted with his words and actions.”
The Very Rev. Protopresbyter Frank Miloro, chancellor, American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown, is impressed that during Francis’ installation he reached out to Orthodox Christians.
“It was not only the first time an ecumenical patriarch was present, but the new pope met for over an hour with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople,” Miloro said. “This is ecumenically positive for the two churches of the Orthodox East and the Catholic West.”
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.