From his humble home life to his gift-giving and cold-calling, Pope Francis continues to surprise

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
September 16, 2015 08:00 AM

Pope Francis touches down Sept. 22 for his first-ever trip to the United States, and more than 2 million fans are expected to flock to his appearances over six days in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.

PEOPLE, for the new issue on newsstands Friday, spoke to Vatican insiders, the 78-year-old pontiff’s personal friends, and some of the everyday people who say his touch has transformed them.

Here are their up-close takes on the simple priest who’s charmed the world.

Lunching in the Vatican workers' dining hall, 2014
L'Osservatore Romano/Sipa

1. He lives a no-frills life.
No gilded Papal Palace apartments or armored Mercedes limo for this pope. When Francis was elected in March 2013 to lead the Roman Catholic Church, he promptly refused the fancy limo and lodging of his predecessors and moved into Santa Marta, the dorm-style Vatican guesthouse for visiting priests and lay people, where he has dozens of housemates.

“He lives in a small room,” says Lucas Schaerer, who, along with fellow Argentinian community worker Gustavo Vera, has been friends with the pope since 2008, when the three worked together ministering to the down-and-out in Buenos Aires’ darkest corners.

The two old friends, who work with the non-profit organization, La Alameda, last visited Francis – who they know by his given name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, before he was pope – at Santa Marta in August.

“On most Sundays, Jorge has dinner with the waiters and cooks of Santa Marta. They all sit at tables together, with no formality or protocol involved,” says Vera. Other tidbits from Vera: Francis has never owned a mobile phone (“He can’t stand the things”) or taken a vacation (“He has always loved his work too much to go on holiday from it”).

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, June 19, 2013
Franco Origlia/Getty

2. He never forgets a birthday.
Francis may carry the weight of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on his stooped shoulders, but he remains a thoughtful friend, says Vera.

“He is very attentive and listens to the smallest detail of his friends’ lives. He never forgets a friend’s or relative’s birthday. When a member of a friend’s family is ill, he will call and inquire how they are doing. He has a memory of steel.”

Friends from back home in Argentina: (from left) Merecedes Ninci, Charo Romero, Ana Romero (holding daughter Simona) and Lucas Schaerer visit Francis at Santa Marta in August
Fundacion Alameda

3. He collects pen pals and phone buddies.
If you write the pope a letter, he just might pick up the phone and ring you.

Again and again.

Michele Ferri of Pesaro, Italy, in pain over the brutal murder of his brother, Andrea, in June 2013, addressed a three-page letter to Francis that same summer. In August, the phone rang. “He said, ‘Ciao, it’s Pope Francis. I read your letter and I cried,’ ” Ferri recalls to PEOPLE.

Francis has called the family back almost a dozen times since. “The pope’s calls have now become a bit of a habit for my elderly mother,” says Ferri. “They are a great solace and consolation. In every call, he always reminds us that he is close to our pain and that he really feels for us.”

At Santa Marta in August, Francis baptized the daughter of (left) Ana Romero
Fundacion Alameda

4. He has a cheeky sense of humor.
“He is very funny and often tries to lighten up even critical moments,” says Vera.

An example: Francis had always wanted Schaerer to become a priest, says a third Argentinian friend, Mercedes Ninci. “He saw in Lucas the kind of person that would be a huge asset to the church because he was focused on helping those in need.”

So when Schaerer fell in love and started a family with Ana Romero, Francis nicknamed her Camila, after the 1984 film in which a Jesuit priest succumbs to his feelings for a woman of the same name.

“He would call Ana that – and still does!” Ninci says with a laugh. “He has a very funny sense of humor. It’s quiet and subtle.”

Pizza delivery to the Pope Mobile, Naples, Italy, March 2015
Courtesy Roberto Biscardi

5. Only human, he’s watching his weight.
According to a source close to the pope’s personal physician, Francis has gained 15 pounds since his election and is under orders to cut back his trips to the Santa Marta buffet’s pasta station – to twice a week.

Doctor’s orders include a one-hour daily walk around the Vatican gardens, but a source inside Santa Marta says Francis is not entirely obedient. “On some days, he spends hours on end sitting at his small, tidy desk, writing and studying, barely getting up from his seat.”

Reporting by PRAXILLA TRABATTONI in Rome

For more on Pope Francis’ private world and visit to America, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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