From Rome: The First Weekend
Good day from Rome during the first weekend of the pontificate of Pope Francis. The city is even more maddeningly difficult to navigate today. In addition to the thousands who’ve turned out to see Pope Francis preside over his first angelus, many thousands more are taking part in the Rome marathon. Roads are closed, police are on overtime and patience is thin. Still, there were mainly smiles in Saint Peter’s Square earlier when Pope Francis greeted the many Romans and out-of-towners who had come to hear the angelus message—and to catch a glimpse of the new face of global Catholicism.
Pope Francis’s revolution in small gestures continues. This morning, after celebrating Mass at the Vatican’s local parish, he stood outside the front door of the church and greeted every one of the people in attendance, much like a pastor would do on a Sunday morning at your local church. Then, in the kind of spontaneous moment we should come to expect, Francis plunged into the crowds lining the street, shaking hands, kissing babies, giving blessings. The Swiss Guard and other Vatican security were horrified, as were the papal courtiers who are unaccustomed to such informality. Yet the Supreme Pontiff really didn’t give a lick.
Later, during his angelus address, the new pope departed from the script again; he made a book recommendation (Cardinal Kasper’s new book on mercy; watch that Amazon.com ranking climb!) and then told us all after the blessing to go and “have a nice lunch.” Objectively speaking, such gestures aren’t a big deal; but in the present context, they matter a lot. We’ve come to expect a certain dour sobriety in our popes. No more; the black and white papal aesthetic has given way to MGM technicolor. These first few days of energetic spontaneity have done much to calm any anxieties about Francis' age. Amazingly, for a man who is 76, there’s a certain youthfulness in everything he does. And it seems to have struck a chord: among the many in the piazza for the angelus were folks in their teens and twenties, many of them looking up the Latin prayers on their iPhones so that they could make the proper responses. If that’s not the new evangelization, I don’t know what is.
Now that Saint Peter's Square has emptied, workmen and other Vatican officials will begin in earnest the preparations for Pope Francis’ installation on Tuesday. The cops and the cabbies (two usually reliable sources) say that there could be more than 500,000 people here for the liturgy on Tuesday.
Yesterday morning, Pope Francis spoke to the Vatican press corps, drawing a parallel between the work of the media and that of the church, saying that both labor to communicate "truth, beauty and goodness." It’s not obvious that America’s cable news networks are fully fulfilling that mission; still, as the editor of a magazine, I appreciated the sentiment. Also yesterday, the new pope announced that all of the curial officials (Vatican administrators) from the last pontificate will be held over temporarily. That last bit is important because curial officials are usually re-appointed to their posts pro forma. The pope appears to be sending a signal that change is a-comin’; fasten your seat belts folks.
Meanwhile, just across town at the Italian Senate, the talk has turned from papal politics to Italian politics, as Italy still struggles to come to grips with February’s inconclusive election result, as well as its twenty-sixth prime minister in just sixty years. A number of commentators here have pointed out that while Italian politicians continued their month-long kibbutz and jockeying for position, the Catholic Church elected its new pope in just forty-eight hours. Not a few in the press have said that those advocating greater democracy in the church should probably take note of that.