· Looking at Pope Francis’ first hundred days as the Vicar of Christ ·
Late on the rainy March evening of Pope Francis’ election, I took a cab home from St Peter’s Square and had the first of what would become a long string of similar conversations with taxi-drivers, shopkeepers and total strangers on the streets of Rome. It was as though the cabbie had fallen in love at first sight, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually seen the new pope yet — he was working when Francis first appeared on the balcony, winning over the hearts of the crowd with two very ordinary words, “buona sera,” and one extraordinary gesture, bowing in silence after asking the crowd to pray for him. But my cabbie was receiving, on his phone, a play-by-play commentary from his wife who was watching the scene on television at home, and she was in tears. That night, the reaction of the cab-driver and his wife was repeated all over the globe.
Why do people experience this warm and immediate connection with Francis? What accounts for the overwhelming crowds around St Peter’s at the Wednesday audience and the Sunday Angelus?
Without question, Francis has his share of pithy picturesque expressions — shepherds ought to smell like they’ve been with the sheep! — and a clear-sighted, no-punches-pulled bluntness that was already evident in his first homily, to cardinals in the Sistine Chapel on 15 March, when he said: “When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”
What is most distinctive, however, is not actually his powerful clarity or skillful turns of phrase. After all, Benedict XVI was also an excellent communicator, capable of speaking forcefully about cleansing the “filth” from the Church, able to give amazingly cogent, off-the-cuff remarks and even catchy, easy-to-grasp sound bites like “The Church is alive, and the Church is young.”
Yet, despite the fundamental continuity in content, people sense a change. Whereas Benedict was content to let his words speak for themselves — one of his many forms of humility — Francis communicates at another, more personal level. With Benedict, the message was always clear, but the messenger was self-effacing. What you find with Francis is a tendency to ad-lib, to spontaneously depart from a text and rephrase it so as to make the point hit home, or else to invite the public to lend their voice in assent. As a consequence, with Francis, the message tends to become, in a way, a personal plea. The words and ideas do not simply speak for themselves but become part of a personal encounter.
Without making himself the center of attention, without any self-consciousness, he allows himself to be himself. We all know he loves the Argentinian soccer team, San Lorenzo. Not long ago, as he was waving to people from the pope-mobile in St Peter’s Square, when he caught sight of a San Lorenzo fan and quickly signaled 3-0 — the score of San Lorenzo’s latest victory — and then, without missing a beat, resumed waving to the rest of the piazza. Clearly he is a man comfortable in his own skin, whose naturalness sets others at ease and attracts them.
Francis communicates with more than words. Stopping to pay his bill at the Casa del Clero the day after his election was an eloquent expression of personal responsibility and of reluctance to accept privileges or special treatment. Living in Casa Santa Marta expresses a similar message, along with a hunger for Christian fraternity and fellowship. By spending time hearing confessions in the first Roman parish he visited, Francis sent priests everywhere a clear signal about the importance of this sacrament in parish life. Indeed, teaching by example, Francis is fast becoming a model for pastors everywhere. The vast majority of priests could scarcely dream of imitating the scholarly brilliance of Benedict, but Francis’s example of outgoing charity and direct evangelical simplicity is accessible to all.
With time, it may well become evident that, in the successive papacies of Benedict and Francis, the Holy Spirit has provided the Church with an exceptionally powerful “1-2 punch” of theory and praxis.
So far, the spring of Pope Francis has been a sun-filled period for the Church. Many say that, surely, the rains will come. Fortunately, we have some idea of how Francis will respond. One of the already-indelible images of this new papacy is of one Wednesday audience: in the pouring rain, a lone white figure standing out above a immense, motley sea of umbrellas, both black and brightly-colored — the successor of St Peter, the shepherd without an umbrella, drenched and smiling, forgetting about himself with an infectious joy that made his flock forget the rain.
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 24, 2019
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