It's a familiar sight at papal events: Pope Francis departing from his security detail and wading into the crowd to embrace a child or lift a baby in the air. The pope’s affection for children is obvious from his travels. Now we know the extent of affection children have for the pontiff.
Youngsters from across the globe have written to Pope Francis, and now they have his answers. Those letters and their responses appear in a new book,Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Letters from Children Around the World. The letters were collected from parishes and social service agencies worldwide and compiled by Loyola Press in Chicago, a Jesuit press.
"The hardest job in all of this was to take all of these wonderful letters and whittle them down” from 259 to a sampling of 30, said Tom McGrath, Loyola's director of Trade Publications and Parish Life Resources. The youngsters often address the pope as if he were their grandfather. "The children had no problem; they knew exactly what they wanted to ask the pope. They didn't need to be prodded," McGrath said.
The letters come from children in Moslem, Hindu and Buddhist countries as well as majority Christian nations. McGrath said one of his favorites is the pope's response to a letter written by 7-year-old William, an American. "I find it very moving. In fact, I can barely read it without choking up," McGrath said.
William wrote, "Dear Pope Francis, If you could do one miracle, what would it be?”
The pope answered, "Dear William, I would heal children. I have never been able to understand why children suffer. It's a mystery to me. I don't have an explanation. I ask myself about this and I pray about your question.”
Jesus wept, the pope continues, “And by weeping, he understood our tragedies. I try to understand too. Yes, if I could perform a miracle, I would heal every child. Your drawing makes me think: there is a big, dark cross and a rainbow and the sunshine behind it. I like that. My answer to the pain of children is silence, or perhaps a word that rises from my tears. I am not afraid to cry. You shouldn't be either."
The pope signed each letter, "Franciscus."
"It's like being in the room with him and listening in to a very special conversation. It's him; it's the real man coming through loud and clear," McGrath said.
In all, 26 countries are represented. The letters are written in 14 languages. All were carried to the Vatican by Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit editor based in Rome. Originally Spadaro presented 21 letters to the pope for response. But, says McGrath, "Pope Francis answered all of those and he was enjoying himself so much he decided to do nine more."
Each letter was accompanied by a drawing. "The pope would read the letter, look at the child's picture, look at the drawing that accompanied the letter, and he would kind of look off into space and imagine the individual child, and it was as if he was talking to the child," McGrath says.
A 10-year-old boy named Mohammed, writing from a Syrian refugee camp asked, "Will the world be again as it was in the past?"
The pope answered, “In today’s world, there is so much suffering. And, unfortunately, you know that firsthand. There are those who manufacture weapons so that people fight each other and wage war. There are people who have hate in their hearts…. But, you know, this suffering is destined to end. It is not forever. Suffering is to be lived with hope.”
Referring to Mohammed’s drawing, the pope continued, “It is just as you have expressed in your drawing: with the sun, the flowers, the trees and your smile as you fly in the air playing ball.”
Joaquin, 9, of Peru wanted to know, “Why are there not as many miracles anymore?”
“Who told you this?” Pope Francis responded. “It is not true! There are miracles even now…. There are everyday miracles—like the miracle of life and the miracle of good works that change people’s hearts…. I’ve experienced many miracles. No, they’re not the spectacular kind…. But I have seen many daily miracles in my life.”
Francis also reveals he once considered being a butcher, that he often struggles with decisions, especially if he has to remove someone from a job, and that we “don’t have to have long discussions with God” to pray.
“There’s a simplicity to what he says and profundity at the same time,” McGrath said.
Loyola editors eventually accompanied 12 of the young letter writers and two of their siblings to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. He chose to visit with the youngsters on one of his days off in a room where he usually greets visiting dignitaries.
“The children were sitting on this beautiful oriental rug waiting and in walks in Pope Francis.” McGrath recalled. “He smiles and stands amid the children and he holds out his arms and the children run to him, and he hugs them and they hug him.”
Each of the visitors carried a gift. When Francis received a bottle of maple syrup from Ryan, a boy from Canada, McGrath says the pope grinned and exclaimed, “Ooh, this is good!”
“The whole place burst out laughing. It was a lively conversation, like being at somebody’s Thanksgiving table,” McGrath said.
What makes Francis happiest in his work? He tells 9-year-old Judith of Belgium:
“It makes me happy to be with people…I can’t imagine myself alone. Judith, I like your drawing. I think of myself as you have drawn me: hand in hand with you and your friends…. As the pope, I think I ought to be with people.”
Judith Valente is America's Chicago correspondent.