By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis
I’ve seen Pope Francis three times in six days, starting with the night he was elected. Every time I’ve had to wear the highest heels I own just to see over the heads of the massive crowds. I could also have done with a pair of binoculars.
On Sunday, I arrived at St. Peter’s around 11.15am for the midday Angelus. The square was already packed and a massive crowd of hundreds, if not thousands were waiting to get in. I decided to use my press pass to go up to the roof area between St Peter’s and the colonnade (Braccio Carlo Magno) as it didn’t even look as though I’d be able to get into the square. On the roof there were dozens of TV and photo journalists with many more camped under temporary gazebos on buildings near-by.
A new Pope is always a massive event, but Pope Francis is really giving journalists “bang for their buck”. One thing is his complete unpredictability. Popes generally stick to set texts that have been carefully written for their speeches. Pope Francis has departed from his set text on every public occasion so far – much to the delight of his audience.
In a meeting with the world’s journalists at the Vatican on Saturday morning he thanked us for all the coverage we did of the conclave and election, and then looked up and smiled and added, “You really worked…eh”.
Pope Francis even managed to crack a few jokes about the conclave, telling the press that when he won the other cardinals started suggested possible names. One, he said, suggested he become Pope Clement XV, “so you can get even with Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!”
The Pope’s unpredictability also extends to his actions – much to the exasperation of the Vatican police. He’s already made references to being the Bishop of Rome as well as Pope, but he seems to be taking this role seriously. He not only gives his speeches in Italian and no other languages, but yesterday rather than saying Mass at St Peter’s, Pope Francis walked to Sant’Anna, a small church within the Vatican walls, and said Mass there. Afterwards, he did an unscheduled meet and greet with the nearby crowd.
By choosing the name Francis, the Pope gave us a big hint of the way he sees his mission. It’s an unconventional name for an unconventional man and it embodies an image of fraternity, equality and respect.
Already Pope Francis has given visual signs that he may be the spiritual leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics, but he is also one of us. He has chosen not to the wear a fur-trimmed ceremonial cloak worn by predecessors, nor the red shoes. He’s also been seen riding on a mini-bus with cardinals rather than taking the papal limousine.
All of these things are enormous attention grabbers, but what really captures the imagination is what Pope Francis is saying. After years where the world news seems to have been dominated by crisis and sleaze, Pope Francis over this weekend, put forward some interesting alternatives to the media and the faithful: understanding, truth, mercy and forgiveness.
In his speech to the media, “All of this leads me to thank you once more for your work in these particularly demanding days, but also to ask you to try to understand more fully the true nature of the Church, as well as her journey in this world, with her virtues and her sins, and to know the spiritual concerns which guide her and are the most genuine way to understand her.”
During the angelus, Pope Francis said, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”
And he reminded the faithful that even though we sometimes get tired of asking for forgiveness, “God never gets tired of forgiving us.”
With simplicity and humour, Pope Francis has managed to keep a global audience captivated over the past week – and he’s not even officially Pope yet. Tomorrow I will don the highest heels I can find to queue up at 6am for his inaugural Mass. It starts at 9.30, but the queues will form many hours before.
I’ll be there with the rest of the press from around the world. I’ll be thinking about what the Pope said to journalists on Saturday, how they have something essential in common with the Church.
“It should be apparent that all of us,” said Pope Francis, “are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”