Columbus’ Megan Maudlin, 28, carefully labels herself “a follower of the teachings of Jesus” instead of a Christian. She grew up atheist and never has been much for church attendance because of what she has seen as “years of watching those claiming to be Christian persecuting and judging others.”
However, she said she has loved what she has seen of Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics who has attracted attention far beyond his denomination’s faithful.
In fact, Maudlin is among non-Catholic residents from the area who acknowledging that while a pope normally never has been much on their radar, the pontiff serves as a different role model altogether for many.
Maudlin admires him for his modest guesthouse apartment, instead of the traditional Apostolic papal palace. She admires his down-to-earth transportation and recently telling young nursing mothers they were welcome to remain in the Sistine Chapel for services, instead of leaving as they traditionally had.
“I thought that in itself seemed pretty revolutionary,” Maudlin said. “Everything he’s done has been impressive, including his stand on homosexuality. He seems very open and welcoming, and I think that’s badly needed.”
Maudlin called him “the most true follower of Jesus” she has seen in a long while.
Local residents on Facebook also recently lauded him especially for compassion he exhibited in St. Peter’s Square when he tenderly kissed a man with disfiguring illness on the cheek.
Butler University religion professor Paul Valliere predicted the day Francis was elected in March that his expected spirit of change and reform would dramatically impact Protestants. But Valliere mentioned more recently that even he has been taken aback by the hold the spiritual leader seems to have on many, from the young unchurched to solid, older Protestants.
“He’s definitely been down to earth,” Valliere said from his Indianapolis office. “That fits the idea from Vatican II of the church turning toward the world and facing it. And he consistently demonstrates gestures of a very human touch.”
Valliere also theorized that, among modest or non-churchgoers, Francis fills “something of a religious and spiritual vacuum, in a sense, in this generation. So many people are hungry for something like him.
“And so, when someone as humble as him appears and seems to have something to say, it’s very powerful, because he is filling an emptiness. The size of that emptiness, of course, seems clearer to us now.”
Hope native Adam Knapp, pastor of Centerpoint United Methodist Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, has been heartened by the pope’s humanness with reaching out to teens. Francis even has sought them out in gatherings for quick and playful cellphone selfie photographs.
“He’s an incarnational leader,” Knapp said. “He’s sees the personal leadership style of Jesus and emulates it.”
Plus, Knapp said, he cannot miss the fact that Jesus said in Scripture that he came to earth as a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. Pope Francis recently readily washed the feet of a female Muslim prisoner.
“He has said that his authority and position are merely tools by which he serves,” Knapp said.
Columbus’ Steve Fisher, manager of The Bridge Christian radio station at 90.3 FM and southern gospel station WYGS at 91.1 FM, was raised Catholic but has been a devout Protestant for years. He thinks there are good, pratical reasons for Protestants to be mindful of the pope, whatever picture of the faith he presents.
“For one, for a Protestant to ignore the Catholic church at all is just silly,” Fisher said.
Statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life show that Catholics constitute half the world’s Christian population.
Fisher said he thinks many Protestants worry that if they focus on the pope, they could stray from their focus on Jesus and Scripture. His non-Catholic radio station listeners do seem to pay some attention to the pope, as far as he can tell.
“Our listeners are pretty sharp,” Fisher said. “When the pope is on the money on an issue, our listeners like it.”