By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN)–It was a shipwreck of African migrants off the coast of Lampedusa, a small island in the Mediterranean, that spurred Pope Francis into action.
In the past 18 months more than 500 people have died, or gone missing at sea, trying to escape Africa. The world barely noticed.
Standing on Lampedusa on Monday, Francis prayed for the victims and cast a wreath in the water to commemorate the dead. More importantly, he drew attention to the desperate plight of migrants, in his country and around the world.
“We have fallen into a globalization of indifference,” Francis said, as he stood near an altar made from the salvage of shipwrecks.
The pope wore purple – a color that symbolizes penance in Catholicism - and prayed that world leaders who ignored the plight of migrants might be forgiven.
“The fact he wore purple and asking for forgiveness was very powerful,” Christopher M. Bellitto a church historian and Associate Professor at Kean University said.
“This is a guy that socks you in the gut and touches your heart.”
It was his first trip outside of Rome since Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected in March as the head of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. And it showed how quickly he is learning to shine the megawatt spotlight of his popular papacy on issues dear to his heart.
There are obvious differences between a Catholic pontiff and a princess.
But watching Francis’ first few months in office, it’s hard not to notice that he seems to have taken a page from the late Princess Diana’s playbook.
The Princess of Wales knew where she went, the media followed. Her activism brought global attention to homelessness, HIV/AIDs, and, most prominently, land mines.
Just as Diana ventured far from Buckingham Palace to wrap her arms around landmine victims in Africa and elsewhere, Pope Francis has taken the papacy out of the the Sistine Chapel and into the streets.
Through acts such as embracing a child with cerebral palsy, washing the feet of juvenile delinquents and celebrating Mass on a migrant island, Francis is using the power of his celebrity to bring media attention to dark forgotten corners of the world.
Spiritual life requires more than meditating and reading books, Francis says. Catholics and other people of faith don’t need a “refresher course” to “touch the living God,” he said.
“All we have to do is go out onto the street.”
Taking it to the Streets
On the streets of Lampedusa the pope scaled back on the pomp to be with the migrants, many of whom were Muslim.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian priest close to the Vatican, said the pope had wanted to go to Lampedusa with just a small group, flying commercial.
“There was a simplicity to this that is not normally given to papal visits.”
But challenging messages come with the pope’s simple style.
While Francis was praying at the harbor, a tweet was sent from his @Pontifex account: “We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.”
We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) July 08, 2013
We pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants. God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.
The tweet was a 140-character shot across the bow at global leaders wrestling with immigration, most notably in Europe and the United States, said Rosica.
“I think he was giving a very clear signal to many countries, including the United States, about its outreach to refugees and all the blocks that are put it,” Rosica said. “He’s not just speaking as Jorge Bergoglio; he’s speaking as the leader of the Catholic Church addressing the world.”
The world has taken notice.
Italian Vanity Fair named him “Man of the Year” this month in a cover story calling him “Pope Courage.” In the article, rock star Elton John called Francis “a miracle of humility in a era of vanity.”
John hasn’t been the only non-Catholic to sing the pope’s praises.
“It’s time to admit it; Pope Francis is kind of Awesome,” Stephen Marche, an atheist, wrote in Esquire Magazine’s website last week.
Pilgrims pack St. Peter’s Square when Francis delivers his Sunday speeches. The crowds are noticeably larger than his predecessor Pope Benedict had been drawing. Twice as large, by some accounts in Rome.
Despite his popularity, Francis continues to live in at Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hotel, instead of the opulent papal apartment. He prefers to drive through St. Peter’s Square to greet the masses in an open-topped Jeep instead of the bulletproof bubble.
Last week he said that priests shouldn’t drive fancy cars. After his speech, Francis visited the Vatican garage to inspect his own fleet, according to The Associated Press.
During Mass on July 3 at Casa Santa Marta Francis explained why he has been so hands-on, so insistent on greeting the disabled, the poor, the refugee, and the prisoner.
"The body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today,” he said.
Setting up charities to solve society’s problems is not enough, he said. Catholics and other believers have to get their hands dirty.
“We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally.”
Big preparations for Brazil
World Youth Day, which will be held in Brazil later this month, has the potential to show the full measure of the new pope’s popularity.
Brazil is home to the world’s largest Catholic population, but in the past 10 years the church has been steadily losing ground to evangelical churches.
Could the first Latin-American pope’s homecoming reverse that longterm trend?
Some 60,000 volunteers have signed up to help for the weeklong pilgrimage the week of July 22, 2013.
Events include an opening Mass on Copacabana beach for pilgrims, Catholic DJs spinning records at a beach festival, and a final Mass that is open to the public at a giant field west of the city.
Benjamin Paz Vernal, director of communications for World Youth Day communications said for the week they have ordered 4 million hosts for Holy Communion.
Paz Vernal said site where the final Mass will be held is 2 1/2 times bigger than that of the last World Youth Day in 2011. At that Mass, Spain’s National Police estimated the crowd was 1.5 million people.
The pope will be busy in Brazil: and it’s a typical itinerary for Francis.
He will visit a drug rehabilitation hospital, a Marian shrine, hear confessions from young inmates, and tour a slum in Rio de Janiero that the Vatican notes was “recently pacified.”
But what everyone will be watching is what is not what on the itinerary from a pope who seems to relish improvisation.
“I’ve utterly given up trying to figure out what he’s going to do,” said the Rev. Paddy Gilger a newly ordained Jesuit priest who runs the website “The Jesuit Post.”
In Francis he sees a pope unafraid to push the boundaries and keep his minders – as well as the media - on their toes.
“It’s very Jesuit: whatever it takes,” Gilger said. “He’s unafraid to use any tool he can to share the gospel. If it wasn’t so sincere it’d be very manipulative.”
Back to the clown Masses?
Francis’ style is not without critics, most notably in his approach to worship.
When he first stepped out on the balcony to meet the world as pope, Francis wore a simple iron cross instead of one made from gold. The throne of St. Peter has literally been stripped of its jewels and the brocaded papal cape left with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In its place: a simple white cassock.
“Benedict, in his relatively short papacy of eight years, worked very hard to bring back a lot of things that were identified with Catholicism. With the Vatican it was splendor, it was dignity,” Kenneth Wolfe a writer for traditionalist Catholic publications such as Rorate Caeli.
“Francis is more of a … American Protestant,” he said with a sigh. “Not in beliefs but in demeanor and approach to religion. Dressing as one of the people.”
The pope’s trip to Lampedusa was charitable, Wolfe said, but the Mass there summed up what Wolfe dislikes about Francis.
“The Mass was pretty much a joke. I mean to have an altar made out of a boat, a wooded chalice, a lectern that had a ship’s steering wheel on it and altar girls?” he said. “It resembles the clown Masses of the 1960s. It’s not a serious way to present liturgy.”
After the Second Vatican Council, Latin was dropped from the Masses in favor of local languages, opening the door for a host of new hymns and practices, some of which traditionalists derisively refer to as “clown Masses.”
And, as Wolfe notes, it also opened the door for Masses that featured actual clowns.
“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t seen a little disgruntledness,” Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Association said about the response to Pope Francis.
But the distaste is limited and mostly concerns matters of liturgy, according to McGuire.
“The overwhelming response has been positive,” she said.
The path forward
When he returns to the Vatican after World Youth Day, the new pope will finally have some down time, the Vatican said.
But Francis still has an ambitious to-do list – and no one expects the 76-year-old to slow down.
In fact, he’s already pledged to reform everything from the Vatican bank to the Curia, the professional staff at the Vatican.
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, offered some insight into why the pope has been so busy.
“The clock is ticking. He’s got one lung. You’d better do it now.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.