Pope Francis is pulling in the crowds on his tour of Latin America.
At his first stop in Ecuador, 800,000 people are estimated to have turned out for mass in the city of Guayaquil. Not bad for a country of only 16 million people.
Francis’s conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were also capable of attracting large numbers of the faithful on their international trips, but the messages they delivered to their followers were somewhat different.
Where they were conservatives who took a hard-line on issues such as divorce and homosexuality, Francis seems intent on reaching out to Catholics who have become disillusioned with the Church’s rejection of contemporary social mores.
But the current Pope goes one step further, appealing to non-Catholics as well with his calls for action on issues of global importance, like climate change and what – on his recent visit to Bosnia – he called an atmosphere of war across the world which is shattering countless lives.
Francis lives modestly – in an overt kind of way – and has also identified himself with opponents of what he calls unbridled capitalism and inequality and had himself photographed for the International Labour Organisation’s campaign against child labour.
While continuing to oppose gay marriage, he also attracted attention when he indicated a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality when he told journalists: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
The Argentine pontiff has shown a gift for communication and memorable quotes, and with more than 12 million followers on Twitter he reaches the parts previous Popes couldn’t reach.
His sense of humour and penchant for self-deprecation was immediately apparent the night of his election when he toasted his fellow cardinals with “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”.
But he uses all this to serious ends and is provoking global discussion on things that matter, something that is attracting serious admiration from people, particularly progressives, who may well have run a mile the Catholic Church in the past.
Clearly, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a sharp mind and is talking about issues close to many hearts. He also has charisma.
But I think Pope Francis also stands out because other world leaders have been found wanting.
Think of the alternatives.
President Obama was elected 7 years ago promising change and the audacity of hope, but has singularly failed to meet the expectations he raised. From the absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize he got – seemingly for simply not being George W Bush – and the famous Cairo speech where he called for a new start with the world’s Muslims, it has been pretty much downhill. His appeal especially eroded by his preference for using drones to kill people in other countries he identifies as America’s enemies – as well as uncounted others who just happen to be nearby – and the world-wide, industrial-scale spying by US intelligence agency, the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden.
Focussed as he seems to be on Russia’s narrow interests and lacking much in the way of soft power skills, President Putin attracts little admiration, if some grudging respect.
China’s President, Xi Jinping, has emerged as his country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but given his focus on national economic development and the re-assertion of Chinese influence, he is yet to show he has a message with global appeal.
Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Merkel, may have a reassuring effect on German voters who have dubbed her Mutti (Mummy), but the Greek crisis has cruelly exposed her limitations as more than a national leader – and none of her European counterparts shows any more knack for statesmanship.
Then there’s the UN Secretary General who’s meant partly to embody the world’s conscience. Ban Ki-moon has been game for a bit of self-deprecation of his own – performing Gangnam style with his compatriot Psy and making a spoof film on the NSA revelations for the UN correspondents dinner – but his civil servant’s demeanour fails to inspire. How many remember Ban made climate change his signature issue in his first term?
If Pope Francis continues to sound relevant to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and is able to see off the still powerful conservative forces in the Church before he steps down or dies – a big if as he is 78 after all – then he could act as a catalyst for social change and help the World find a way to deal with the challenges it faces from global warming to growing inequality.