09/29/2015 02:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Our Love Affair with Pope Francis Is Warranted


See this photo? It's a pic of our youngest son. We dressed him up as the Pope a couple of Halloweens ago. Crazy Catholics that we are, my husband and I actually put the outfit together ourselves. No store-bought costume for our little guy!

The costume garnered loads of attention. It even earned Augie first prize honors in a baby costume contest here in New York.

But the papal duds also prompted questions from friends. "The Pope, huh? Why would you want to dress your baby up as a pontiff of a church that's so, well, divisive?"

Friends who knew me had valid reasons to ask. I attended Mass every week then, as I continue to do now. But the Church, they knew, hadn't been particularly kind to my family over the years. My mother was a nun for nearly a decade before having me, and left the convent emotionally shattered. My father revealed himself to be gay ten years into his marriage to my mother, and left my mother to pursue his new life. Then my parents did that most sinful of Catholic things and divorced. In subsequent years, I listened from my church pew to many-a-priest condemn various aspects of my family's complicated life. Still, we prayed. Still we attended Mass.

The church for so many years was intolerant. But not so much anymore. No, with Pope Francis, there's a whole new feel to the church. And my money's on this being the year we see more popes than ever in Halloween contests and parades, both the baby kind and the grown-up kind. No doubt about it, Pope Francis is a rock star. Even Kim Kardashian thinks so. The reality star famously tweeted last week, "The Pope is dope."

I couldn't agree more. For Catholic families everywhere, including, ahem, complicated ones like mine, this pope's unlike any other. Here are five reasons I'd argue the positive impact of Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. will be felt not only for days, but, in fact, for years to come -- and prompt lots more costumes like our Augie's to be rocked (and revered) at Halloween:

1) This Pope's Got His Finger on the Pulse: Popes in years gone by weren't expected to be 'with it.' They could and did get away with hiding behind centuries of tradition and using that as an excuse for not acting on problems and challenges of the modern era. Not this pope. Case in point: He's the first pontiff to take on climate change. And not just a little bit. He's made the environment a huge part of his message - in both spoken and written words.

2) This Pope Doesn't Just Talk the Talk - He Walks the Walk: So many times, clerics tell their people wonderful things that sound so good. "Help others." "Live humbly." "Give all that you can of yourselves to others - spiritually and physically." It sounds so good. But while they've talked the talk, they haven't necessarily walked the walk. After presenting grandiose speeches about the importance of giving and living simply, they've retreated back to big opulent palaces, situated behind imposing gates, that literally and figuratively separate them from their flock. Not this pope. When he says to live humbly - he means it. He shuns pageantry. He's famously gone out to buy his sleep-deprived guards coffee in the morning, instead of expecting someone to fetch coffee for him. And let's not forget that incredible image of the Pope insisting on using a Fiat as his chosen set of wheels, moments after meeting President Obama. Talk about a symbol of a man who's working to embody the simpler life.

3) This Pope Knows How to Hold a Mirror Up to our Faces, without Condemning or Judging: You know that speech the Pope made to congress that reduced even the most hardened politicians to tears? Wanna know why that worked? Here's why: The Pope gently reminded us as a nation all that we've been given, all that we're capable of, all of the great leaders who called themselves Americans who courageously went before us. He kindly led us to the conclusion that to those who are given much, much is expected. He made us want to do better than many of us are doing. But he stopped short of the old time-tested church way of condemning us and calling us ungrateful sinners. No, he didn't guilt us into wanting to do better. Instead, he did the best parental thing: he gently held up a mirror to us as a nation, to show us where we've fallen short and he made us want to dig deep within ourselves to do better. For his sake. For our sake. For our kids' sake.

4) This Pope Isn't Afraid of Ruffling Feathers: You know how the Church used to denigrate unwed mothers? And divorcees? Not this pope. He's embraced both populations, much to the consternation of the old guard Catholic clergy, who have long made these folks out to feel like Second Class Citizens, no matter how much they prayed, no matter how hard they worked. Pope Francis hasn't bothered to worry about what hardliners think about him or his new policies and actions which embrace both populations. He's made clear he answers not to politics - but to his own internal moral compass, which is all about embracing, not disparaging, no matter what hardliners in the Church may think of him.

5) This Pope Is All About Compassion: In an age of 'everyone for himself', this Pope stands out for being so darn inclusive of everyone. He invites prisoners for VIP tours of the Vatican gardens, even washes their feet. He makes speeches about the harmful effects of loneliness. He stops cars in motorcades, even when running late, to embrace disabled children, comfort parents, embrace the downtrodden. He wants to combat poverty. He asks the gay population to pray for him and notes he will pray for them. He even embraces Atheists - those who don't believe - letting it be known that's ok, too. He wants to include, not exclude;, comfort, not judge.

So for all of these reasons I argue though the Pope has left U.S. soil, and returned to the Vatican, I would argue the love affair for this Pope has only begun. He seems, for lack of a better term, to "get" his flock, even those of us with decidedly complicated families.

Like so many moms, I took my kids to see the Pope last week, as he made his way through New York City. Augie, the one who, not so long ago, dressed up as the Pope, got to see Pope Francis in his unofficial backyard, Central Park. As the Pope passed by in his Popemobile, and looked in our direction, and waved, Augie cheered and waved back.

"He was waving just at me, Mama," he told me moments later, pleased as could be.

"How do you know it was just you?" I asked him, laughing.

"Because, Mama, he knows I think he's cool."

He paused then, thinking for a moment.

"Hey Mama, maybe I should be the Pope again this Halloween."

Mary Pflum Peterson is the author of the recently-published memoir, White Dresses: A memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters which details the story of her decidedly complicated Catholic family, through the dresses they wear.