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The Bishop in a parish

For Pope Francis too his first visit to a parish of the Diocese of Rome was a surprise. Not so much because of the warmth of the welcome or the actions of the Bishop of Rome as rather for the naturalness with which his meeting with the parishioners of Santa Elisabetta e Zaccaria parish took place. The way of being of the Pope from, as it were, “the ends of the earth” and the increasing affection that multitudes of people are showing him are in fact now common knowledge, thanks above all to the audiences and the morning Masses that have succeeded one another almost every day since his election.

However in the Roman parish on the city’s extreme northern outskirts it was different. And this was immediately clear from the greeting of the parish priest, a young Roman cleric who is a native of Romania. He spoke simple words that struck Pope Francis by their genuineness and prompted him to give up the speech he had prepared to improvise another, which was extraordinarily effective. It was a conversation with the children who are about to receive or have just received their First Communion.

On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, drawing inspiration from the parish priest’s reference to the Gospel episode of Mary going with haste to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth – from whom, with Zechariah, the parish takes its name – the Pontiff said that it would be beautiful to invoke her in the Litany as “the Lady who goes in haste”. In this manner whose immediacy was impressive the Bishop of Rome explained the Virgin’s presence, caring and loving like that of a mother, in the daily life of those who call on her.

Moreover it was precisely about being Christian – the essence of his homily – that the Pope spoke from the viewpoint of the Trinity, if one may say this, and with the help of the children. Thus an unexpected dialogue was woven between the Pope and the children who were shortly to receive their First Communion from his hand. And the girls and boys, lovingly prepared by their excellent catechists, knew very well what to answer, thanks also to the wise affability of the Bishop of Rome who had come to their parish.

So it was that the too brief month of the pontificate of John Paul I sprang to mind with the simple and enchanting dialogues that he had begun to give at the General Audiences, questioning an altar boy, in accordance with a custom that Albino Luciani was already practising during his episcopate. And over and above memories, the more distant example of Pius XI surfaces in the remembrance of history with his Audiences in which he conversed until late, in either the morning or the evening, so as to be able to greet and bless personally all those present; or a century ago, the precedent of the catechism lessons that Pius X used to give to the faithful of the Roman parishes in the courtyard of San Damaso.

In this way, together with the Cardinal Vicar and assisted by the Auxiliary Bishops, the Bishop of Rome – which is the most traditional and authentic papal title, together with that of “Servant of the servants of God” –  began his visits to his parishes. And the first parish he visited was uniquely the one that can be described as the last, because of its geographical distance from the centre. As a sign that makes explicit Pope Francis’ attention to the outskirts, geographical and especially spiritual, from which, like the watchman described by the prophet, reality is better understood.

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Jan. 16, 2018

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