Because Pope Francis “walks his own talk,” as Crux associate editor John L. Allen Jr. put it Thursday night during a panel at Boston College, he’s won over the hearts of millions of Catholics. But there are many challenges left to confront – challenges with the potential to shape the church in Francis’ vision.

“Pope Francis has brought hope to people’s lives and has compelled many people to take a look at the church again,” according to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and a personal advisor to the pope.

The panel, “A Pope for the 21st Century,” focused on the pope’s popularity and his vision for the Church. The event marked the launch of Crux, a new website covering the Vatican and the Catholic Church, a project of the Boston Globe.

O’Malley, revealing that he communicates with the pope by fax — “It goes right to his room, he responds right away, and you don’t have to worry about differences in time” — called Francis “certainly one of the most extraordinary leaders of our day” and “thoroughly Argentinian. He loves tango, soccer, and matte.”

Did Cardinals know what they were getting when they elected Francis? “Obviously, he is the man of surprises, and he’s done so many things that no one could have forecasted,” O’Malley said.

Several panelists said the pope’s emphasis on joy and mercy provides an opportunity to heal divisions in the Church, but they were asked about several hot-button issues, including immigration, the firing of openly gay employees from Catholic institutions, the role of women and the laity in the church, and political discourse.

O’Malley said the prohibition from communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is unlikely to change, but that the pope’s concern for how to reach out pastorally to those in this situation is a top concern.

“I think that the Holy Father’s concerns for the Catholics who are divorced and remarried will find a lot of support from the bishops,” O’Malley said, but cautioned against expecting much change. “The pastoral practice must always follow our theology and doctrine.”

Several questions dealt with perceived divisions in the church between liberal and conservative Catholics. But one panelist rejected the very notion.

“I think Francis helps us to explode those categories, which I don’t believe are relevant to Catholics,” said Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former ambassador to the Holy See.

Hosffman Ospino, a theology professor at Boston College, said most Catholics are more concerned more with issues affecting their personal faith lives than heated political and ecclesial debates.

“Are we paying attention to how Catholic families in the US struggle everyday to educate their children in the faith? I don’t see polarization there. Do we have vibrant parishes?” he asked.

An audience member asked if Pope Francis’s reported pastoral concern for gay Catholics might slow the firings of gay Catholics from Catholic institutions.

O’Malley, not addressing the question directly, said the pope’s “notion of mercy and inclusion is going to make a big difference in the way that the church responds to and ministers to people of homosexual orientation” but, like with divorce, said the church will not necessarily change its doctrine.

One panelist suggested that despite being quoted by President Barack Obama, the pope’s message of communitarianism is unlikely to find a home in the US.

“We’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party which is based on radical individualism, and the move to the left by the Democratic Party on social issues, which is based on individualism,” said Robert Christian, an editor of Millennial Journal, said, suggesting the pope’s message is at odds with both parties.

O’Malley, too, highlighted community as one of the pope’s priorities.

“The pope has a true companion in Jesus. He is a Jesuit who puts Christ at the center of his life,” he said. “In the midst of a culture that glorifies individualism, the pope speaks to us about encounter.”

On immigration, O’Malley said the pope set an example by consistently bringing up unjust immigration systems, including here in the US.

“The fact that there are 11 million undocumented people living in our country shows how broken the system is,” he said. “We need immigrants. We as a church have a special call to reach out to them, to help them.”

Nearly all panelists agreed that the pope was calling on lay people to be more involved in the church, including in its central governance in Rome.

“One of the most interesting things that he has done so far,” Glendon said, “he is really bringing lay men and women into positions that they have really not occupied before.”

Even that’s not without controversy.

“He really wants lay people to take their proper role in the church, to be missionary disciples, and we’ve started to see that,” O’Malley said. But of Francis’ curial reforms that rely on lay experts rather than Vatican bureaucrats? “There’s been a lot of resistance, but the Holy Father has been behind this 100 percent.”

Ospino said that the pope is helping to shake up the church, something not always welcome by American Catholics.

“I think that the church somehow, particularly in our country, institutionally, we are too comfortable in our ways of doing things. We don’t want to change. We don’t want to pay attention to the new voices, to the new concerns,” he said.

O’Malley, who was recently confirmed as president of the Vatican’s anti-sex abuse committee, said the process has been slowed by finding people from around the world to serve on the committee.

“There are whole continents where the issue is not on the radar screen at all,” he said.

Introductory remarks at the event focused on the launch of Crux, with Globe editor Brian McGrory explaining that the news organization “saw a journalism need for more reporting, more discussion about the Church. Our aim is to be the best English-speaking news organization covering the Vatican” as well issues important to Catholics including philanthropy, war and peace, and spirituality.

Associate editor Allen, who covers the Vatican, said the website strives to be free of ideological bias that colors much religion reporting.

“What we have a chance to do with Crux is to create a space that doesn’t belong to anyone, that isn’t carrying water for one or another of these camps,” he said. “As a journalist, I want to get the story right. As a Catholic, I want to create a space where all these different tribes can become friends.”