When it comes to “followers,” the pope does have an enormous head start, as leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church. He also inspires unmatched curiosity and attention globally among many millions from other faiths and no faiths.
Francis comments most effectively through compelling gestures. The public sees him kissing the bare foot of an imprisoned Muslim woman, or the illness-ravaged face of a man he is blessing. When a child jumps to his side or grabs his papal skull cap, the pope is attentive, undistracted. Less instantaneous, but still revealing, gestures find him riding public buses, driving his own old car, living in humble quarters or sneaking off in the night to minister to the homeless.
Minority factions, Catholic and “other,” sputter criticisms. Months ago they were surprised at the election of this Argentinean Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church. Now they charge that he restricts himself to what they dismiss as mere gestures, mere symbols, mere ceremonies.
Rigid Catholic conservatives ask impatiently why he does not nail down church dogma and permit only safe, well-worn practices. They charge he is elusive when it comes to supporting those dogmas and enforcing the canon laws. Both, they insist, should be publicly defined, isolated and defended. Those much-noted gestures, they argue, are too ambiguous and nuanced.