The 76-year-old pontiff said he hoped to be more consultative than his recent predecessors, saw an enhanced role for women in church leadership, and believed the church "has sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules."
Francis also raised eyebrows among some when he said that God looked on homosexuals with love and that he was not concerned by criticisms from the Catholic right that he had failed to speak strenuously and often enough on abortion, gay marriage, and other life topics.
The church's priority, he said, should be to "heal the wounds" of the poor, injured, and marginalized. "Then we can talk about everything else."
While current and former Catholics who chafed under the dogmatic conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI may feel "vindicated" by Francis' pastoral approach, Chaput said, his e-mails tell him that other Catholics are feeling "confused" by what they read and hear.
One priest wrote him saying it appeared Francis viewed priests "who are serious about moral issues as being small-minded."
A mother who has spent years counseling pregnant women and opening pro-life clinics "wanted to know why the pope seemed to dismiss her sacrifices." Another priest said Francis was making "all the wrong people happy."
Chaput urged his flock to read the 12,000-word interview in its entirety. "We need to be very careful in taking mass-media coverage of the Catholic Church at face value," he cautioned.
Noting that Francis likened the church to "a 'field hospital' for the wounded in a cruel world," Chaput told his readers that the pope was calling the church to "create a space of beauty and mercy; to accompany those who suffer; to understand the nature of their lives; to care for and heal even those who reject us."
Despite Chaput's view, scholars and observers interviewed this week said it appeared Francis was "opening a window" that many Catholic liberals had supposed was boarded shut.
"I'm not rushing to the conclusion that we'll see dramatic change in teaching or discipline," said William Madges, professor of theology at St. Joseph's University. "But what we will see is a very different tone, a very different approach to issues.
"Do I think [Francis] will change the church teaching on abortion? No," said Madges.
"But he is saying the church's message has to go beyond things like abortion and gay marriage . . . and must apply the medicine of mercy to people who are suffering."
Madges said he would not be surprised if Francis began a reexamination of the church's ban on artificial birth control, married clergy, and the reception of sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics.
"Francis is telling the [conservative] bishops and priests to expand their agenda," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, the former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, whom Benedict removed from his position for his frequent questioning of official church teachings.
"They were all leading with rules and regulations," said Reese, who now writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter. The new emphasis, he said, "is God's love, compassion, and mercy."
"Honestly," said Reese, "a lot of the things Francis said in that interview, I would have been afraid to say in America" magazine during the pontificates of Benedict or John Paul.
America published the interview in its Sept. 30 issue, which can be found at http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview.
Among Catholics expressing relief at the prospect of a more liberal pope are many members of the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious (LCWR), which Benedict ordered investigated in 2008 for its positions on women's ordination, homosexuality, and birth control.
"My first thought" on reading Francis' interview "was, 'What a spirit of openness,' " Sister Carol Zinn, president of the LCWR, said this week. "I feel he is a pastor."
Zinn, provincial of the Sisters of St. Joseph, whose offices are on the campus of Chestnut Hill College, said it was "too soon to tell" whether Francis might redirect the team of American bishops who are investigating the conference. But based on the pope's simplicity, his phone calls to suffering people who write to him, and his social justice message, she said, "his agenda resonates with us."
David Gibson, author of books on Benedict and the Catholic Church, cautioned that Francis' statements that so appeal to liberal, marginal, and ex-Catholics "could alienate the more conservative Catholics who populate the pews and write the checks."
"Is he going to be a pope for Catholics who don't go to Mass?" asked Gibson, a former writer and newscaster for Vatican Radio.
"People who have felt left out of the church for decades have reason to cheer," said Gibson, now national correspondent for Religion News Service.
"But it's not like Francis is going to bring the left wing in now to run the show. I think it's going to be more like, 'no more cliques, no more in-crowd running the Vatican or the church.' "
Francis "seems to be saying there needs to be a rebalancing," said Gibson. "And that in the end greatly cheers most Catholics."