In a recent interview with an Italian newspaper, Pope Francis warned against calling him a "superman" or "star," deeming the descriptions offensive. He is, he said, a normal man who laughs, cries and has friends.
And yet, people around the globe respond enthusiastically to him as if he alone can satisfy a deep hunger for a renewed Roman Catholic Church focused on Gospel messages of compassion, inclusiveness and mercy.
The truth is, no single individual can satisfy our spiritual hunger. The challenges are too great: sexual-abuse scandals, Vatican financial misconduct and the perception that the church is deeply disconnected from those it is supposed to serve.
Pope Francis has reached out to everyone -- particularly those who are struggling -- and made it clear that all of us Catholics are to be part of the transformation. Not easy, but he helps pave the way by calling us to be joyful believers in the power of the Gospel. Joyful . . . not fearful people focused on sin and punishment, as many of us have been of late.
His apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," published in November, highlights his views of the change he is leading in the church and in the world. He is trying to build the peace Jesus gave to the Apostles. He challenges us to end turf battles, whether they be within Vatican offices or elsewhere, and embrace processes that bring us together. He knows that the heart hungers for unity and we must open the door to make that happen for each of us.
He also tells us that reality -- read, real people's lives -- is more important than any theoretical construct. This is critical for social justice advocates like myself as we work to apply faith to lived reality. Stories told us by parents struggling to feed their families break our hearts and cause us to grow in a way that a federal budget battle or a Congressional Budget Office report never will.
And finally, he states that building peace requires inclusion of all because individual shapes are needed to form the whole. Each of us matters.
Some skeptics want him to immediately focus on church structural issues such as the role of women and shared decision-making. While critically important, these issues cannot be resolved without first engaging in spiritual conversion.
It won't be easy. Almost everyone resists, seeking to assign blame for individual failings to others. Pope Francis understands such resistance, but he is engaged in leading the transformation. Simple acts like living in a modest communal residence and personally calling people reaching out for help directly connect him to the world. This is transformational for a church hierarchy accustomed to palaces, fancy capes and inaccessibility.
By focusing on everyone, Pope Francis seeks to heal barriers that separate us. He calls us to connect our spiritual lives with the real world around us and to live out our spirituality by being justice-makers. This requires political engagement for the common good.
By asking us to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit, he has created deep challenges for us. We cannot authentically connect with others until we acknowledge pain and injustice that have wounded so many. We must let our hearts be broken by injustices we witness, weep together, and atone for our previous inaction or participation before we can truly experience conversion. Pope Francis calls us to this cleansing act, leading to forgiveness and new life.
We must all participate with him in renewing ourselves and our world in the Spirit -- for that is the Gospel's call.
Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of Network, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and author of "A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community."