(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
Pope Francis is celebrating his first Christmas as pope at the Vatican. He's had quite a year. Time Magazine hailed him as the People's Pope when they named him Person of the Year. And this week, NBC called the pope's question: Who am I to judge, the most powerful phrase of the year.
NPR's Nathan Rott went out to see how American Catholics in the pews feel about the new pontiff.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: I am standing across the street from the Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago, Illinois. It is a cold and gray Sunday morning. And we are going to see what churchgoers here think of Pope Francis.
JOANNA BRUNETTEI: We love him. We love him.
WALLY LAMACKI: Frank, that's his name, Frank. We love him to pieces.
GLORIA LAMACKI: Yeah. He's a good Catholic.
STEVE WOLFE: Breath of fresh air.
ROTT: What you just heard from: Joanna Brunettei, Wally and Gloria Lamacki, and Steve Wolfe, was similar what I heard from almost everyone walking in to this Sunday mass.
Their reasons differ. Some said they liked Pope Francis because of his focus on addressing poverty, while others said it was because of his actions - how he lives in a meager guesthouse instead of the plush papal apartment, or how he drives a used car. But the main reason people gave for their adoration was summed up by Alexis Ferrand.
ALEXIS FERRAND: How he accepts everybody that wants to be part of the church, and that's how it should be.
ROTT: You find that sentiment all around the country. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC showed that 94 percent of American Catholics approve of Pope Francis.
And that spans from the old, to the young. Michael Cruz Malalili is a student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He says students like him approve of Francis because he's shifted the church's focus onto something many young people actually care about: economic disparity.
MICHAEL CRUZ MALALILI: I feel like at times, the battles that we kind of fight for, might not be the most appropriate at that exact time. Like right now there's a lot of energy being expended, you know, towards, like, gay marriage and gay rights, right, when there's people on the streets dying because they don't even have food.
ROTT: This shift in the rhetoric is widely popular. But some Catholics point out that it's not a change in actual beliefs.
BRUNETTEI: Pope Francis seems to be wonderful on so many issues, and really standing with the people, except when it comes to women in the church. And unfortunately, we're just seeing a lot of the same old sexism there.
ROTT: Erin Saiz Hanna is the executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference. She says, yeah, the tone has changed. But...
ERIN SAIZ HANNA: It's simply not OK to be in this tizzy about Pope Francis and say, hey, this is not OK. Women are not being treated well in our church and throughout greater society.
ROTT: Another concern Hanna has about the media's love affair with Pope Francis is that it suggests the pope may be more important than the people in the pews. That's a sentiment shared by another progressive Catholic group, Call to Action.
Jim Fitzgerald is its executive director. He says that most American Catholics support equal marriage rights. So the pope's seeming welcome of gay people into the church, is far behind where the bulk of laity fall on the issue.
JIM FITZGERALD: When Pope Francis says who am I to judge, it can come across in the media as a huge change. Well, it is a huge change because the pope said it. but the church has spoken on this in terms of the laity and their support for LGBT equality.
ROTT: Fitzgerald says the hoopla surrounding Francis' statements can distort what he's actually trying to say.
That's a concern shared by conservative Catholics as well, including Monsignor Walter Rossi, the rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. He says Pope Francis isn't changing any beliefs around issues like abortion or homosexuality.
MONSIGNOR WALTER ROSSI: He is saying that in addition to what we have been doing, we also have to refocus on those who are poor, those that are most needy.
ROTT: Rossi says it's important to acknowledge that there is a strong continuity between Pope Francis and all of his predecessors. And it's something worth stressing to people that are enthusiastic about Francis.
REVEREND JAMES ERPS: You have to be careful not to reduce him to a social activist.
ROTT: That's Reverend James Erps. He's the director of campus ministry at Loyola Marymount.
ERPS: He's talking about social issues and he's very concerned about it. But it's also in the context of a bigger picture. What's the basic message of Christianity? Compassion is basic, you know. What did Jesus come to teach?
ROTT: Erps says it's that universal message that's engaging both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.