As an observer of the world's major religious institutions -- Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish -- I keep a skeptical eye trained toward religious leaders. Sure, they do much to help the world's poor. But they also control immense amounts of wealth and have political sway and the very human capacity to do wrong.
Hence, I must say I am enthralled by Pope Francis' apparent renouncement of his church's worldly wealth and his intention to steer the church back toward humility and simplicity: to become a church catering first and foremost to the poor. I humbly remind readers that I had suggested simplifying the Roman Catholic Church's sometimes-ostentatious display of wealth last week, on the same day Pope Francis was elected. I never, ever thought I would see a pope choose this path.
I was amazed that at his inaugural mass in St. Peter's Square, Francis toned down the traditional two-hour ceremony. He transformed it from a coronation -- complete with a ruby- and sapphire-studded tiara -- to something much more humble.
Impressively, he chose a silver ring with gold plate rather than the traditional gold ring for his papacy.
His message was also more real-world and less materialistic. During Mass, he appealed to world leaders to protect poor people and the environment. He did not ride in the so-called "Pope-mobile," but in an open-air vehicle. At one point, he jumped out to bless a disabled man -- such a stark contrast from his recent predecessor and such a refreshing turn.
We know that as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he delighted in taking public transportation and paying his own bills. This man takes his vow of poverty seriously.
That said, we have no idea yet how Francis will translate his words into deeds. He is taking over a scandal-plagued institution. Reducing the pomp and splendor is a great first step. But what is next?
We know he publicly protested corporate greed as a cardinal. Will he continue to do so as pope? Will he sell off church assets to help feed the poor? I visited the Vatican Museum the last time I was in Rome and remember feeling aghast at the amount of wealth the church had accumulated over the millennia. I asked myself: To what end? Why does the Vatican need a huge display of ancient Egyptian artifacts, worth an untold fortune? It could sell those treasures and feed its poor.
I would love to see that, but cannot believe Francis would do such a thing. I hope to be proven wrong. Similarly, the Catholic Church is one of the largest holders of real estate in the world. Why not sell some of those buildings to provide much-needed medical care to its poorest members?
We've seen reports speculating that this pope does not plan to modernize on major social issues. As a cardinal in Argentina, he had publicly opposed gay marriage and gay adoption -- but privately offered a compromise on civil unions as the "lesser of two evils," The New York Times reported, quoting Bergoglio biographer Sergio Rubin.
The cardinal also was against contraception. Access to contraception and education is the only way poor women pull themselves out of poverty. In my view, opposing contraception only generates more poor people. It does not help them out of poverty.
Let's not even think about where this pope will lead his church on issues of abortion or expanding women's power in church hierarchy: to wit, allowing them to become priests. On those topics, I fear he will not modernize in the least.
It remains a complete mystery how he will handle the church's priest-pedophilia scandal and how he will reach out to the many thousands of now-adult survivors of sexual abuse by priests.
Nonetheless, Francis' start is monumental, and for that he deserves great credit.
Bonnie Erbe is the host of PBS' "To the Point" and writes this weekly column for Scripps Howard News Service.