Why even atheists love Pope Francis
Never mind all the guff: it is a rare thing indeed for atheists and agnostics to be genuinely impressed and inspired by religious leaders. Speaking personally – as a man who is but two drinks short of atheism – although I try to view such leaders with respect, the reasons informing my lack of faith temper the depth of my admiration.
Traditionally, only the Dalai Lama, with his peculiar brand of cuddles, giggles and Gucci, has attracted such widespread acclaim. However, in the brief time since his selection, Pope Francis has attracted a remarkable level of affection from both the faithful and the faithless. Attacks from the Guardian and others have largely failed to stick; instead, the Pope has received a remarkable amount of accolades from a wide variety of sources.
It is all relative, of course. Francis's position on the Falklands has seriously irritated Britons – as the possible inauguration snub by our Royals and officials indicated – and campaigners for gay rights remain sceptical. But on the whole, in a short period of time he has become unusually well regarded, especially given the general unpopularity of the Catholic Church.
The reason is simple. This is a man who pays his own hotel bills, travels by bus and jeep, wades out into the crowds unguarded, and makes his own telephone calls. (Yesterday, he telephoned the main number of a Jesuit residence in Rome. The receptionist, upon hearing the identity of the caller, responded "yeah, and I'm Napoleon".) This might seem like no great shakes, but given the luxury normally showered upon his office, it takes guts.
In other words, whatever one may think of his views, the Pope has genuine humility. This is such an unusual quality these days that it is like a beacon, outshining our reservations about him. Indeed, the term "Jesuit", formerly associated with tyrannical school regimes and sadism in the public imagination, has started to be rehabilitated.
False humility can be spotted a mile off, of course, and we are all used to doing that. But Pope Francis has proved that authentic humility can be just as immediately visible. This most straightforward of qualities has been absent from public life for so long that we have almost forgotten it were possible. If our politicians had a bit of this to offer, the world would be a very different place.