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American Public Has Hugely Positive Views of Pope Francis

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Pope Francis is cheered by faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia) Gregorio Borgia / AP

Americans have an overwhelmingly positive view of Pope Francis, with just six percent of respondents in a new NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll saying they view the pontiff negatively.

As many around the country prepare to celebrate Easter this weekend, 55 percent of Americans said they view Pope Francis positively, with 34 percent saying they give him a "very positive" rating. Twenty-four percent said they are neutral and 15 percent said they were not sure.

Feelings for the newest leader of the Catholic Church, who ascended to the post in March 2013, are even warmer among American Catholics. Three-quarters — 74 percent — say they rate him positively, compared to just 3 percent with a negative view.

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Pope Francis greets a child as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia) Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Francis, who was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013, has pushed for reforms within the church’s organization, emphasized the plight of the very poor and called for more compassion for gays and lesbians.

Asked early in his papacy about priests who are gay, he famously replied "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

He is also famed for his sunny and sometimes frank approach to the papacy, recently admitting that he misses going out for pizza.

His favorability far outpaces that of American political figures also asked about by NBC News/ Wall Street Journal pollsters, including Bill Clinton (56 percent positive, 26 percent negative), Hillary Clinton (44 percent positive, 36 percent negative), Barack Obama (44 percent positive, 43 percent negative) and Jeb Bush (23 percent positive, 34 percent negative.)

Pope Francis’s favorability ratings are also stronger than those of his predecessor, Pope Benedict. In February 2013, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 30 percent of Americans viewed Pope Benedict in a favorable light, while 17 percent disagreed.

Known for his more stringent approach to social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Pope Benedict had a net negative rating (25 percent positive, 32 percent negative) among self-described liberals at the time. In contrast, Pope Francis enjoys a 62 percent favorable rating from liberals today, although his support among conservatives is slightly more muted at 53 percent.

The current pontiff is viewed almost as approvingly as Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 until 2005. In 1998, 65 percent of Americans viewed him positively, while just seven percent disagreed.

The new NBC/WSJ poll of 1,000 adults was conducted March 1-5 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.