AUSTIN -- Celebrating mass at the Vatican on Wednesday's Catholic holy day of obligation, Pope Francis welcomed the new year for his first time as leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.
It was in March of 2013, two weeks after Pope Benedict XVI's sudden and historic resignation, when the world was introduced to 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. Becoming the first pope from the Americas and the first Jesuit pope, he chose his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi for his love of the poor.
Since then he's shunned the trappings of opulence, wearing simple robes and living in a small apartment on the Vatican grounds. His first months in office, Francis has preferred to be among the people, physically embracing the sick and impoverished. He's followed up letters from followers with personal phone calls, delivered messages via Twitter and surrendered his chair to an adventurous child.
"He's taking us back to basic things, and all of this has been received very well," said Father Bud Roland, priest of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Westlake. "I think his actions speak volumes about the kind of man that he is, about the message of the church reaching out the disenfranchised, the poor, to everyone."
In his short time, Francis has made headlines for his humble gestures as well as his sense of humor, notably posing for the first ever "selfie" photograph featuring the leader of the Catholic Church. He's simultaneously stirred controversy over his critiques of the effects of "trickle-down economics" on the poor, as well comments on homosexuality that seemed to signal a shift in attitude from his predecessors.
"If a person is gay and accepts the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge them?" Francis told reporters in a July interview. Even Francis' use of the word "gay" was seen as an unusual break from the traditional way the Church has discussed the issue of homosexuality. Francis ended 2013 named "Person of the Year" by both Time Magazine and The Advocate, a prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights magazine.
While many may differ with some of his positions, Pope Francis' humble and pastoral approach has been welcomed by leaders within the wider faith community. The senior pastor at Bannockburn Baptist Church in South Austin, Ryan Rush, said there are aspects of Francis' method and contributions to the larger religious discussion on which Christian leaders can agree.
"I think he deeply cares for the poor, and has entered that into the conversation," said Rush. "I believe that he is pretty passionate about humbling himself, and by doing so raising the value of other people, and that's sort of a new conversation with a lot of leaders. And I think a lot of people appreciate that."
"He challenges Church leaders," said Roland. "I think that he challenges pastors and bishops. He made the comment 'smell like your sheep,' and so you can take that little sentence apart and try to figure out what that means in terms of what someone like myself does every day."
The Catholic Church will certainly face challenges in 2014. Roland says Catholics continue to be attacked and persecuted in parts of the world, and credits Francis with actively urging peace and promoting compassion for refugees. As for drawing more people to the pews, Roland says Francis has certainly helped.
"I think that he's reinvigorated the church. I think that he's continued what's been the ancient message of the church, but I think he's done it in very creative ways," said Roland, who suggested the changes under Francis are just beginning. "The church can become very insular at times, kind of turned in on itself. And I think if anything, Pope Francis is turning us inside out so that we look out to the world, look out to the needs of our brothers and sisters everywhere."
At the same time, Rush said boundaries between Christian faith communities seem to be loosening. As the pastor of a congregation which he says also includes Catholics, Rush offered a New Year's message that shares Francis' inclusive tone.
"I think the greatest message that we could take into 2014 would be that 'God so loved the world' means he so loved individual people," said Rush. "And if we can ascribe that same value to other people, even those with whom we disagree, I think our community is going to be a better place."