Good day from Rome on the fifth day of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Crews are hard at work in Saint Peter’s Square, readying the place for what is expected to be the biggest papal installation ceremony in history. Italian newspapers say that a million people might turn up for the event tomorrow. Pope Francis has put the word out that everybody’s welcome. Accordingly, the Vatican press office has said that the size of the crowd will not be regulated. “No tickets will be issued for that Mass,” the press office said. “All who wish may attend.”
That apparently includes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Air Force II landed in Rome yesterday and America’s lay Catholic-in-Chief has taken up residence at the Masada-like American embassy on Via Vittorio Veneto. The Veep will be one of dozens of government representatives at tomorrow’s liturgy. Thousands from the Roman press corps will join them. The Vatican has said that while some of the 6,000 press people accredited for the papal conclave have gone home, they still expect about 2-3,000 journalists to cover the installation event, far more than the 1,000 journalists who sought accreditation for the beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2011. And just when you thought that things couldn’t get more interesting, we learned today that both Al-Jazeera and The 700 Club are among the hundreds of new applications for Vatican press credentials.
Pope Francis has kept up a busy schedule during these initial days. He held an informal, private meeting and lunch with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner today; yesterday he met with the superior general of the Jesuits, Father Adolfo Nicolas. The session with Kirchner was accompanied by still more talk about the new pope’s actions during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War in the 1970s. The locals here think that this will all die down; there’s really no “there” there. One Roman reminded me that in the days right after Benedict XVI was elected pope there were all kinds of stories about his alleged Nazi past. Sure enough, a quick Google search for April 2005 returns headlines like “From Hitler Youth to the Vatican” (The Guardian) and “Pope’s Nazi Past” (NBC News). Benedict had his defenders as well (Local Jews Dismiss Pope's Nazi Link) and the bogus story eventually died. One suspects that the present story will follow a similar trajectory. Amnesty International, after all, has already cleared Pope Francis of the charge of complicity, as has the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. Last week he told BBC Mundo that "there were bishops that were complicit with the dictatorship, but Bergoglio, no."
Still, there are powerful interests at work and they are all angling to co-opt or compromise the new pope. Just one example, a BBC story from today: “Argentina's Kirchner raises Falklands with Pope Francis”.
Lastly, across the Tiber, throughout the city center, the purveyors of the papal chachkies have kicked it into high gear. The new pope’s face is now everywhere, plastered on every conceivable kind of merchandise: postcards, umbrellas, matchbooks, even bottles of wine (not very well aged one imagines). The new papal coat of arms has also been approved and released, so we should similarly expect that image to go forth and multiply.