If there were any doubts about his plans to shake up the papacy, Pope Francis put those to rest during his recent trip to Brazil.
Whereas Pope Benedict XVI delivered speeches to bishops during a 2007 visit to the world's fifth-largest country, Francis mingled with crowds and spoke to more than 1 million people during an open- air Mass at Copacabana Beach on Sunday.
Whereas Benedict wrote that homosexuality was "a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil," Francis said, "If a person is gay, seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" Whereas Benedict was reserved and scripted, Francis seems to recognize that he and the Catholic Church must engage with a changing world, and one way to do that is through the media. On an overnight flight home to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, Francis spoke to reporters for 80 minutes and reportedly didn't dodge a question.
No one should mistake Francis as a radical reformer. He's a conservative theologian who is sure to maintain the church's opposition to gay marriage, birth control and the ordination of women as priests. It remains to be seen whether he will confront the entrenched forces in the Curia, the Vatican hierarchy that doles out favors and has been largely impervious to change under previous popes.
Yet because of the Catholic Church's vast reach, even incremental steps forward by a pope can be a force for progress. When a pope shows humility and asks, "Who am I to judge?" it sends a message to bigots who do judge.
When a pope tells the Catholic clergy to get out of their comfort zones and work in the poorest neighborhoods, it challenges leaders of all religions to do the same.
Ever since the Vatican conclave surprised observers by choosing Francis, it was clear that this former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, would put far more focus on Latin America and the developing world than his European predecessors. The world saw that in Brazil, where Francis visited indigenous tribes in the Amazon and called attention to a 2007 church document that he helped draft that highlighted the threats to the Amazon rain forest and the people who live there.
"The traditional communities have been practically excluded from decisions on the wealth of biodiversity and nature," the document reads. "Nature has been, and continues to be, assaulted."
It's still too early to know what kind of legacy Francis hopes to leave. But if it includes making the church a larger force in empowering the poor, protecting the environment and encouraging greater tolerance of gays, lesbians and other minorities, he could go a long way toward restoring the church's standing in the United States and the world.