But Pope Francis was not taking a path outside his faith tradition. On the contrary he was reverting to its foundational principles. He is inspired by two figures above all – Jesus and Saint Francis; indeed taking the name of the latter after being elected pope. He has learned from them that Christianity in its essence means compassion, humility and caring for others – especially the vulnerable in society. Immediately upon being elected pope he had expressed this philosophy by reaching out to ordinary people, living simply and rejecting the pomp and extravagance of the papal court. His washing of the feet of those in prison, including Muslims, was the ultimate act of humility. It was directly inspired by Jesus and Saint Francis, the very essence of their message.
The pope also embarked, again almost immediately, on reaching out to the Muslim world. Relations between Muslims and Christians had not really recovered since the time when his predecessor Pope Benedict XV1 gave a lecture in September 2006 in which he quoted a passage that described Islam as “evil and inhuman.” Even at the time the present pope, then Archbishop in Buenos Aires, registered his disagreement stating, “Pope Benedict’s statement[s] don’t reflect my opinions.”
From his first foreign policy address in March 2013, Pope Francis made improving Muslim-Catholic relations one of his top priorities.
Before an audience of ambassadors from 180 countries, he explained how he wanted to work for peace and bridge-building between peoples. Muslims and Catholics, he claimed, needed to intensify their dialogue. Positive shockwaves were sent into Muslim-Catholic circles, and Muslim scholars and religious institutions around the world welcomed Pope Francis’s election.