Pope Francis Blossomed From Somber Priest to Beaming Pontiff, Friends Say

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By Sylvie Haller

The man the world knows as Pope Francis is very much like the man friends and colleagues have known for years, with one exception: He smiles a lot more.

The radiant, beaming face we often see on Pope Francis is a departure from the somber fellow that they knew, according to National Geographic contributing writer Robert Draper, who spent a month in Rome and three weeks in Argentina researching the man behind the smile. Draper documents that reporting — and complements hundreds of behind-the-scenes images from photographer David Yoder — in a new book, "Pope Francis and the New Vatican."

In search of insight and recollections, Draper met with some of Francis' most trusted acquaintances, some who have known him for more than 50 years, and until now, have not shared their impressions of the man they knew as “Jorge.”

Some were students, some taught him, some were clerics with whom he worked. Several had never talked to journalists before.

The power of faith brims over for parishioners in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Francis extends his touch.Dave Yoder / National Geographic

Friends teasingly used to call him Mona Lisa to jest about his his bulldog-like jowls, but today, "What we see, in a way, is the full flowering of a man, who has always been a holy man, always preached this message of inclusion and non-judgement, but who on a this larger stage, has become a fully realized individual," Draper told NBC News.

They described their friend to Draper as a shrewd man, perfectly organized and very aware of everything he does and does not do. They called the pope a man of great intellect, but at the same time great empathy and spirit. They spoke of his lack of interest in fancy things, evident by his choice to live in simple guest quarters rather than the ornate Vatican Papal apartment, to ride in a Ford Focus rather than a limousine, and to wear plain robes without gold finery.

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In Argentina he was called "el Porteno," which translates to mean a man of the port, but moreover means a man of the street and of the people. "Those differences became apparent the moment we saw him. Immediately after assuming the Papacy he gave the speech and began with 'Brothers and sisters, good evening,'" Draper said.

When friends came to visit the Vatican, they asked the pope why he didn't wear a bullet proof vest. And while Draper says he is not reckless and recognizes he is a figure of controversy, the pope replied to his friends, "God has put me here. He'll have to take care of me."

National Geographic's new book "Pope Francis and the New Vatican."

And when he told his friends of change, Draper said, he wanted to make it clear that there was going to be a new way of dealing with the congregants in the Catholic Church. He instructed the clergy and the Bishops to seek out those who have been alienated by the church, and to communicate, and listen.

One friend, Franciscan priest Francisco de la Serna, told Draper, "He won't change doctrine. What he will do is return the church to its true doctrine — the one it has forgotten, the one that puts man back in the center. For too long the church put sin in the center."

Draper said "Jorge's" arrival to this holy position left old friends "overcome. They were stricken. While on a basic level they were not surprised, because he, it only made sense, and I think reawakened their faith in Christianity, that a man such as this would become the leader of the Catholic Church."