Pope Francis 'gets' the vast Roman Catholic middle – and that, alone, may be revolutionary for a pontiff. He may delight the world by veering from Vatican script on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception, but will he change the ancient church?
When Italian journalist Gianni Valente traveled to Argentina to cover the country's economic collapse in 2002 for a Roman Catholic magazine, he came away not with just a story in his notebook but with the seeds of a friendship with a man who struck him as a singular priest – a man with a broad-spectrum empathy, whom the journalist continues to this day to call "my priest."
Mr. Valente says that Jorge Mario Bergoglio – then-cardinal of Argentina – seemed particularly close to the people; he didn't just speak in political and social terms about the crisis that wiped out the savings of his nation's middle class, but he actually spoke with a deep sense of humanity that set him apart from other church leaders of the time. "He talked about the suffering of parents, and how they would cry, but only at night so that their children wouldn't see," he recalls.
Cardinal Bergoglio's ability to see "the heart of each individual," says Valente, became clear in his own life, as a friendship formed between the two men, over the phone and through letters.
Bergoglio would send the Italian family his important homilies and Christmas and Easter cards, sometimes enclosing newspaper clippings: Bergoglio, who played basketball as a boy and who knew Valente's young son was an avid hoops fan, would send stories he had cut out in the local press about Argentine NBA player Manu Ginóbili.
It's a small detail about the priest who became Pope Francis, but it is a clue to how a relatively unknown religious leader of South America has become a global sensation in the first six months of his leadership of the Catholic Church.
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