Pope Francis has captured the attention of the secular media as few other Catholic figures have. This week, The New Yorker featured Francis on its cover as a playful snow angel, and offered a profile of 'a radical Pope’s first year.'
- By James Carrol for The New Yorker
On most Wednesdays, the Pope gives a general audience, and this one was packed. It was a balmy October morning, and more than a hundred thousand pilgrims, tourists, and Romans had funnelled into St Peter’s Square. It was the first of three large gatherings Pope Francis presided over that week for a celebration of the family during the Catholic Church’s 'Year of Faith.'
Wooden railings imposed order in the square. I was about thirty yards from the Pope. In front of me were a pair of Vatican ushers in white tie and tails, several clergy, a short man in a yarmulke, and a handsome couple holding hands. Beyond them, Francis, seventy-six years old, in his stark-white cassock and skullcap, seemed energized by the festive crowd. A large man with a ready smile, he read from a brief text in Italian, but with fervour. 'What kind of love do we bring to others? . . .
'Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?' The throng was silent, listening carefully. After Francis spoke, others summarized the remarks in various languages. Then a line of prelates approached his chair.
Now the prelates were gone, and Francis, with guards at a discreet distance, moved along the railing, greeting the people. The couple in the front row were in their thirties, tall, and dressed in dark clothing. Unlike others at the railing, who were waving and calling, 'Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!,' they held back. But when Francis turned to them the woman leaned forward with such gravity that the Pope took notice and stopped.
Tears streaked her face. Francis reached for her hand, which she took as license to put her mouth by his ear. She whispered something. Francis looked startled, drew back a bit, then turned to her partner. The Pope embraced him, then drew the woman in. They stood like that for a while, the couple enveloped in the arms of the Bishop of Rome. Then Francis placed his hands on the man’s head. The man’s shoulders shook slightly. The Pope made a sign of the cross in the air above them and moved on.
As the crowd dispersed, I approached the couple. The man was weeping. The woman told me, 'My husband has a brain tumour for the last four and a half years. He’s getting worse and worse. We came just for this, for his blessing, whatever it is—physical, emotional, or spiritual.' She told me that they were from Argentina, as is Francis. 'I feel very near him. His look, his voice, everything is near to my heart. But surely not because he is from Argentina.'
Once, I felt that way myself, about another Pope. This was 1960, and I was seventeen. My family was granted a private audience with Pope John XXIII. My parents, my grandmother, my four brothers, and I made our way up the Bernini staircase to the papal apartments in Vatican City. We were shown into a small, high-ceilinged room with red fabric walls; an elevated throne stood at one end. A monsignor lined us up.
Then Pope John walked in, grinning, with outstretched hands. He was short and stout—all in white, although his shoes were red. His eyes danced. With a cry of 'Bravo!,' he clapped, saluting my parents for their large Catholic family. Pope John, who was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, in Lombardy, was one of fourteen children, a sharecropper’s son.
Years later, I would look back on my reaction as naïve, yet in Pope John’s arms I felt the embrace of God.
Lately, the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.
PHOTO: Cover of The New Yorker
FULL STORY: Who am I to judge? (The New Yorker)
Pope Francis brings religion to the newsstand (Religion News Service)
Profile: Pope Francis (BBC)