Pope Francis arrives for his general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on September 18, 2013. (Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)
Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE - Pope Francis says it's not necessary to talk about abortion, contraception and gay marriage all the time. He mourns that the world doesn't care whether children are dying of hunger and urges the sacrifice of personal comfort for the greater good.
And that's just from interviews with religious and secular media that came out in the past two weeks.
Messages from a man Catholics consider a successor to the biblical Apostle Peter and recognized as the leader of the world's largest Christian denomination are reverberating around the world. In Middle Tennessee, one Vanderbilt University religion professor called the reaction a phenomenon. Christian rock band Jars of Clay's guitarist, Stephen Mason, put it more casually - "I've got a pope crush," he wrote on Facebook, linking to an article about Pope Francis bemoaning the world's obsession with money.
The Facebook post touched off a string of enthusiastic comments in agreement, a sharp contrast to what happened earlier this year when Mason posted a picture of Pope Francis' Twitter account and drew criticism that he was promoting the antichrist.
Mason, who attends St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tenn., said he believes the pope is shining light on the nature of God.
"I think right now, in terms of that, the Pope is lighting it up. He's killing it right now," Mason said. "He's provoking people to examine themselves and their kingdoms and their economies and what they're working toward."
Even critics like him
Even some who take issue with Pope Francis, elected in March, still like him. After the Italian magazine La Repubblica published an interview with the pope last week, Russell Moore, president of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a blog calling it a "theological wreck." Moore mostly took issue with the pope's statements on individual concepts of good and evil and following one's conscience - Christians are called to both repent and believe, Moore said later.
"Your conscience is telling you something is wrong, the guide is the standards of God," he said. "This isn't 'Look and see what you believe is important and good and follow that direction.' And I don't think that's what the pope believes. I would be stunned and shocked if that's what Pope Francis believes."
Moore's blog touched off national attention, and he heard from both Catholics and non-Catholics who both agreed and disagreed with him.
It makes sense that both varieties would be paying attention to the pope, even when that would have been considered verboten by some Protestants just a few decades ago.
That has to do with the American concept of rugged individualism, said Lee Camp, a biblical ethics professor at Churches of Christ-affiliated Lipscomb University.
Today, most Americans recognize every community has some structure of authority, so they're more understanding of the papacy and willing to accept messages from it, Camp said.
And while some may consider Pope Francis' social messages surprisingly relatable - especially considering his predecessor Pope Benedict's emphasis on doctrine - those messages were to be expected from a one-time Jesuit priest, said Bruce Morrill, professor of theological studies at Vanderbilt University's divinity school.
Morrill, himself a Jesuit priest, said Jesuits focus on meeting people where they are in life, without judgment, and know they may be misunderstood in the process of doing that.
The pope's statements that he believes the church's teachings on matters such as abortion but doesn't need to put them center stage help draw people.
"The image of the Roman Catholic Church over time has been that these are people at a great distance who teach at us and talk down to us - bishops, archbishops, Vatican officials," Morrill said. But Pope Francis worked directly with people.
"Those people who don't like his progressive agenda - and far more importantly, humble and pastoral agenda - they are the ones who keep growling or grumbling," Morrill said.
Some Catholics still will feel called and deeply committed to protecting human life, Morrill said.
But on Friday, which marked the Feast of St. Francis, students at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tenn., compared Pope Francis' charisma with his predecessor's.
"It's remarkably different," said senior Caleb Pracht. "Pope Benedict was interested in orthodoxy, a by-the-book approach. That was great, but it didn't resonate with non-Catholics or young people or people whose lifestyles may conflict with church teaching.
"Even people who may be uncomfortable with his message or with his unorthodox takes on Catholic doctrine are more comfortable because of the way that he conveys them, which is not from a seat of authority - which he has."
Senior Katie Swaringen said she's been struck by how many times Pope Francis has referred to himself as a sinner.
"He's not able to condemn anybody for who them are, what they believe, what kind of lifestyle they're living," she said. "That's up to God. That's what he wants to communicate to everyone. Not just Catholics."