ARUN RATH, HOST:
If you've ever been to the Vatican, the opulence is staggering. It couldn't be a greater contrast to Pope Francis, who assumed the papacy just eight months ago. Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio crusaded for the poor and made a point of living a modest lifestyle. From day one, it was obvious this was a different kind of pope.
He lives in a simple guesthouse at the Vatican. He prefers a Ford Focus over a Mercedes limo. And he said that the church was too obsessed with issues like gay marriage and abortion and must be more active in helping the poor.
This week, Pope Francis put his vision for the future in writing with a document called "The Joy of the Gospel."
John Allen is senior correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter, and he's been covering the Vatican for nearly two decades. He says "The Joy of the Gospel" is a type of papal document called an apostolic exhortation. But this one is a bit different.
JOHN ALLEN: I've seen a lot of these apostolic exhortations come and go. This is the first one I can think of that has become a global sensation. And I think it's because this isn't just a set of minutes about a meeting, but it really is a very personal vision statement from Pope Francis about the kind of church he wants Catholicism to be in the early 21st century.
RATH: And even though it doesn't set doctrine as such, I imagine that nothing that the pope writes is unimportant.
ALLEN: Certainly nothing the pope writes is unimportant. Now, there actually are doctrinal points in this document. I mean, for one thing, he talks about the need for a healthy decentralization in the church, and in particular, with regard to the power of the Vatican. But I think the bigger picture here is this is a kind of Magna Carta from Pope Francis about what he wants Catholicism to be in his time, and it's resonating in remarkable ways around the world.
RATH: Beyond this decentralization, what is this vision that the pope is laying out in this document?
ALLEN: I actually called this Francis' "I Have a Dream" speech in my piece for the National Catholic Reporter, because he opens with a dream. He says: I dream of a church that is more focused on reaching out rather than collapsing in on itself and a church that is more merciful. That is, rather than on focusing on what he calls rules that make us harsh judges, he wants a church that is more tolerant and compassionate.
And I think everything else in the document, including his very strong language about the need for the church to stand on the side of the poor, all of that flows out of those two core pillars of his vision - a missionary and a merciful church.
RATH: There's been much made about some of the more, what might be termed liberal aspects of this document, but there are other ways in which the pope is not giving any ground either.
ALLEN: No. That's absolutely right. On two of the most hot-button questions in Catholic life, that is the ordination of women as priests and church teaching on abortion, Francis made it abundantly clear in this document - as he has on other occasions - that there's not going to be any change. So it's not that everything is up for grabs. In that sense, I think the right way to read Francis, probably, is that he is the pope of the Catholic middle. He's not pursuing the radical program of the left, but he's certainly not the kind of traditionalist that would win hearts and minds on the right.
RATH: Do you have the sense that this document is going to be a defining milestone, or can things sort of go back to business as normal with the church now?
ALLEN: The watershed moment that this document represents is there can no longer be debate about whether Francis is a reforming pope. It is now obvious that he is, and we have a comprehensive statement of the kind of reform that he wants. And the drama now is no longer going to be what kind of pope Francis aspires to be. The drama now is can he pull it off?
RATH: John Allen is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. John, thank you so much.
ALLEN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.