When he first emerged blinking on to the balcony over St Peter’s Square a year ago, Francis already had a unique papal profile. He was the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope ordained priest after Vatican II and the first from a country that permits same-sex marriage. In the hours that followed little gestures, such as taking the bus back from the conclave with the cardinals and paying his own hotel bill, confirmed this would be an atypical pontificate.
Over the past year the media have often implied that Francis is replacing 2,000 years of Christian teaching with something more attuned to the habits of a 21st-century consumerist society. He isn’t. But that shouldn’t blind us to his true originality. For the past 12 months he has searched courageously for new ways to reach hearts whose defences against the Gospel have hardened. He has been most successful when expressing himself through actions. For example, his tender embrace of Dominic Gondreau, an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, spoke more eloquently than a thousand sermons about society’s callous treatment of the disabled.
That hug embodied the top priority of his pontificate, which he later put into words in his extraordinary interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro. “The thing the Church needs most today,” he said, “is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.”
There are countless wounded people and chilled hearts both within the Church and outside it. It is easy to ignore them, but Francis will not allow us to. It is for them that he is taking tremendous risks: conveying his thoughts through the medium of secular newspaper interviews and pondering out loud how the Church might adapt its approach to gay people, the re-married and other marginalised groups. If that leaves us feeling off balance, then it is a small price to pay for the Gospel reaching people we had, in practice, given up any hope of appealing to. Over the past 12 months Francis has gone out into the streets in search of the shunned, the tormented and the lost. We should follow him there.