One year ago Thursday, a relatively obscure prelate from Argentina made his debut as the new leader of the world’s oldest Christian church, stepping out onto the fabled balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and joking that his brother cardinals had gone to “the end of the earth” to find a pope.

For an institution legendary for taking itself rather seriously, that flash of humor alone communicated that this wasn’t going to be your grandfather’s kind of pontiff.

By taking the name Francis, the new pope awakened images of St. Francis, the beloved poor man of Assisi. He then knelt to ask the crowd to pray for him before imparting his official blessing, seemingly inaugurating a new era of papal humility.

It was, as we know now, only the beginning.

In the year since, Pope Francis has electrified the world with his taste for the improbable: his spurning of the papal apartment, his resolutely informal personal style, his startling words, such as his instantly immortal “Who am I to judge?” line on gays. He’s popular at the Catholic grass roots and may be the most celebrated pontiff ever in non-Catholic venues, and even some secular circles where criticism of the papacy is much more common than praise.

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Photos: Looking back on pope’s first year

Symbolically, Francis, 77, has changed the narrative about Catholicism. Substantively, he has taken bold steps toward reform and reoriented the church toward the political and cultural center after years of a perceived drift toward ever more hardline stands.

For all those reasons, the full measure of his impact so far runs well beyond the power structure of the Catholic Church.

Despite that point — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — many observers can’t help wondering what the 114 cardinals who thrust this maverick onto the Throne of Peter are thinking today.

It’s a matter of more than historical interest, because it touches on whether Francis will succeed or fail in institutionalizing his vision. If his most senior advisers aren’t on board, the odds get a lot longer.

The Boston Globe spoke to a dozen cardinals from various parts of the world in late February and early March. Based on that unscientific sample, reaction seems a mix of satisfaction and astonishment. While some admit to elevated blood pressure levels, there appears to be little buyer’s remorse — in part because having a popular pope simply makes their lives easier.

Never expected a rock star

Few cardinals anticipated the way in which the new pontiff would capture the imagination of the world, or how quickly he would do it.

Asked if he would have predicted a year ago that the new pope would enjoy astronomic approval ratings and grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, vice president of the US bishops’ conference, could scarcely have been more definitive. “No, no, and no,” he told the Globe.

The pope has electrified the world with his informal personal style.
The pope has electrified the world with his informal personal style.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York amplified the point.

“We knew we were electing a man of the poor, and we knew we were electing a good manager,” Dolan said. “We had no idea we were electing a rock star.”

Dolan’s experience is typical of many churchmen. He reports that when he does media interviews today, the questions generally aren’t about pedophile priests, crackdowns on nuns, or bruising political fights inside the Vatican.

Instead, they’re largely adulatory inquiries about the new pontiff.

Cardinals also say that politicians and diplomats are less inclined to be hostile to church interests, because no one wants to be on the wrong side of a popular pope, and that when they mingle at the grass roots, even outside the confines of the church, they generally find delight.

DiNardo said one prominent Evangelical leader in Houston recently told him, “I feel like he’s our pope too.” Dolan said he can’t move in New York’s Jewish circles without hearing, “We love this pope!”

To be sure, not all is a surprise. Much that Francis has done tracks what the cardinals expected of him.

For example, they were familiar with Francis’ reputation in Argentina as a bishop close to the poor, a key quality in a church in which two-thirds of its 1.2 billion followers live in the developing world. They also knew that in terms of nuts-and-bolts administration, Jorge Mario Bergoglio profiled as a leader who gets things done.

“We knew he was a man of the social gospel, and we also knew he was a take-charge person,” said Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, summing up the book the cardinals had on Bergoglio heading into the conclave.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads a Vatican office for justice and peace concerns, said he’d met Bergoglio during a trip to Argentina before his election and was struck by how “austerely” the Argentine prelate dressed and how he carried himself without any pomp.

“I couldn’t have anticipated the details of what he’s doing,” Turkson said, “but I can’t say I’m completely surprised.”

Not just a matter of style

Immediately after Francis’ election, the question was whether his impact would turn out to be more in style than substance. Dolan tells a story from those early days that hinted at an answer.

“We were getting ready for Mass the morning after his election, and Francis came in carrying his own alb and just plopped down to get dressed,” Dolan said, referring to a white garment priests wear during services.

Vatican mandarins, Dolan recalled, swarmed around the new pontiff and began issuing instructions about the ceremony. Francis gently, but firmly, swatted them away.

“ ‘That’s okay,’ Dolan quoted the new pope saying, ‘I’ve been saying Mass for fifty years. We’ll be fine.’ The clear message was, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ ”

As a cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio traveled on the subway in Buenos Aires and mingled with the poor.
As a cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio traveled on the subway in Buenos Aires and mingled with the poor.

After twelve months, that flash of gritty self-assurance seems prophetic. On hard matters of policy, Francis has moved farther and faster than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated.

For instance, Francis recently triggered a Vatican uproar by creating a new Secretariat for the Economy, giving it full power to impose fiscal discipline and to police transparency and accountability.

To run it he named Cardinal George Pell, a tough-as-nails Australian who’s one of the few senior churchmen viewed as having not only the vision but the spine to overhaul deeply entrenched patterns of doing business.

While money management may not have the media appeal of inviting homeless men, as Francis did, to a birthday breakfast, it’s hard to imagine anything a pope could do more challenging to the old guard.

“Nobody could have predicted he would strike such a chord with the world,” Pell told the Globe, “and many Italians probably never anticipated that he would reform the financial system.”

Not a right-winger

For many Princes of the Church, the real revelation about Francis is that he’s not quite the doctrinal conservative they thought they were electing. Outside a small circle of fellow Argentinians who knew Bergoglio well, the sense of the Buenos Aires prelate’s ideological leanings was based largely on two elements of his biography.

First was a falling out within his Jesuit order in the 1970s over liberation theology, a current in Latin American Catholicism that sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Mostly because he feared that it might drive Catholics into endorsing armed rebellion, such as the Montoneros guerrilla movement in Argentina, Bergoglio was ambivalent.

Second, Bergoglio engaged in a high-profile standoff with Argentina’s leftist government under President Cristina Kirchner in 2010 when the country became the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage over the vigorous opposition of the church.

As pope, however, Francis has profiled largely as a moderate, declaring in a September interview that “I’ve never been a right-winger.”

While not, he insists, changing doctrine, he has struck a more merciful stance vis-à-vis the church’s traditional teaching, and has opened the door to debate on matters such as permitting Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment to return to the sacraments.

In a recent interview with the Italian paper Corriere della Sera and the Argentine daily La Nacion, Francis also stopped short of blanket opposition to civil unions for same-sex couples, saying “the different cases have to be evaluated in their diversity.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, admits that there have been times when the pope’s almost casual rhetorical turns and his spirit of openness have created heartburn.

“There have been things which are hard to explain,” Collins said, referring specifically to one of the headlines from an October interview Francis granted to a left-wing Italian paper: “God is not a Catholic.”

Still, Collins said, when he reads the full text of what Francis has said, as opposed to sound bites, he generally finds nothing to worry about.

“You read the whole text and it’s great,” Collins said. “You may have to work a little harder to get the proper context, but it’s always there.”

DiNardo said the new pope’s informality and lack of pretense have taken some getting used to. He told a story of being at a two-day meeting of cardinals with the pope in Rome in late November, and turning around during a crowded coffee break to find Francis standing in line for a cup like everybody else.

“You’re both shocked and embarrassed, but he has told people this is what he wants,” DiNardo said, adding that some of his more traditionally minded brother cardinals find it a bit much.

“Some would say, isn’t it wise that the pope has a certain precedence?” he said. “They miss those signs of affection and respect for the office.”

Still, DiNardo said, Francis’ relaxed style by no means suggests ambivalence about his power or his will to use it.

“I’ve never known a pope, if he really thinks he has to use his universal jurisdiction, who’s been afraid to use it,” DiNardo said. “This guy’s not afraid at all.”

Few anxious to go back

Reading between the lines of these conversations, the impression is that whatever reservations some cardinals may feel, few are anxious to turn back the clock.

Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, for instance, is the primate of Quebec, widely viewed as perhaps the most thoroughly secularized pocket of North America. Yet even there, Lacroix said, Francis is a hit.

“The Quebecois love him,” he said.

Lacroix said he’d recently given an interview to a major newspaper often critical of the church. When he was done, he said, the editor in chief told him, “If your pope continues doing what he’s doing, he’s going to get us,” meaning the paper might warm editorially to the church’s approach.

Asked if he would trade such entrée into secular circles for greater doctrinal precision, Lacroix’s response was unambiguous: “Are you kidding me?”

In a similar vein, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said that Francis’ appeal seems to have reached even into corners of British society most hostile to the church.

“Pope Francis has shifted the perceptions of the Catholic Church,” Nichols said. “He’s done it partly through a very deliberate policy of speaking through actions, and it’s hard to argue with actions,” he said.

Outside the West, the enthusiasm may be even greater.

Chibly Langlois, for instance, was one of nineteen new cardinals created by Francis in a February ceremony, and is the first-ever cardinal from Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Americas.

“The Haitians are a people that need to be helped, maybe, but more than anything, they need to be heard,” Langlois told the Globe. “Pope Francis is making us heard.”

Turkson, of Ghana, said Francis is playing well across Africa, in part because he’s able to translate the church’s concern for the poor into emotional language that resonates with ordinary people, such as when asked a gathering of seminarians if they’ve ever wept for a poor person.

“Lots of Africans feel this is a pope who cares,” Turkson told the Globe.

Despite Francis’ remarkable opening act, some cardinals believe there’s still a raft of unfinished business, that the glow around Francis may yet be tested by some of the major questions ahead.

O’Malley, for instance, said Francis “is aware of how serious” the child sexual abuse scandals have been for the Catholic Church, but added that “I don’t think he has a plan yet for how to deal with it.”

Overall, however, the judgment seems strikingly positive. Even cardinals who admit to being blindsided by some of the pope’s words and actions seem to regard the new lease on life Francis has given the church as a godsend.

“It confirms what we believe, which is that if you open yourself up, the Holy Spirit’s going to act through you,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

“It still works.”