I count it as one of life’s richest blessings that I have been living in Rome through the last year, the first year of Pope Francis’ Pontificate. I had lived in Rome before, for six months in 2005, but nothing would have prepared me for such an extraordinary year.
I was blessed to be in the square of St Peters when white smoke came out of the chimney, signalling a new Pope had been elected. Little did we know what an impact he would make. When his name was originally introduced, in Latin, hearing Francescus, I immediately thought our new Pope was from France, but moments later he signalled just how far he was from his home – he was the Cardinal that hailed from the longest distance to become Pope. I will never ever forget the feeling we were left with that night. Especially when we moved from tradition – something we have become used to – as he asked us to bless him - our new Holy Father, “before he blessed us.” I went home that night on a real high.
The day after his instalment a fruiter, named Maurizio, who I walk past and chat with every day, was to encapsulate in one, unusual description what many Italians were feeling with this new Pope. The gesture was to pull his left bottom eyelid down in a very meaningful manner. I wasn’t to sure what this meant, as the Italians are not afraid of expressing their disapproval of anyone, no matter their position. After some inquiry among my Italian friends, I was told, this was a uniquely approving gesture. Maurizio was to describe to me in great detail how the new Holy Father went on his first visit as Pope in an old car – in reality it was a late model VW, not so old for us New Zealanders. This really impressed him, especially given so many Italians are struggling in the economic down turn (during my time in Italy, 5 of 6 of my Italian friends have lost their jobs. Not forgetting there is no unemployment benefit in Italy).
From the installation of Pope Francis, or Papa Bergoglio (as the Italians like to call him. They have chosen this title as it reflects his Italian heritage. Both his parents were Italian). Rome has not been the same. Yes, Rome was always had plenty of tourists, taxis, Pontifical congregations, the media, the Pope’s residence and of course the poor. But they have all changed under this new style of Pontificate. The world seems upside down. The poor are highlighted as the most important. The media seem to never run out of words of praise and support of Pope Francis and even the Church – who would have thought a year ago? The taxis drivers are happy – mainly because business has never been better. The Pope’s residence is empty while he lives in the Vatican hotel, amongst his workers. And the Vatican congregations, once bastions of tradition and consistency, are now places of uncertainty, as personell are changed and job descriptions are realigned. Not to forget the tourist “bomb” which we have experienced. With the doubling or even, tripling of the number of tourists into Rome.
For me there have been two experiences, amongst many I could mention, that stand out to me. One is a Mass I was able to concelebrate with Pope Francis and the other is a prayer service he organised that we celebrated here in Rome.
Concelebrating a Mass at St Peters with the Pope is not as easy as some may think. It requires the obligatory Italian bureaucracy, then security checks and lastly a very specific level of dress followed by a very early start. There were over 1000 priest celebrants that day, which was a blessing in itself. The Mass was a beautiful celebration. However, it was after the Mass we were to experience something special. Pope Francis met with the various dignitaries and Bishops who were at the Mass, this took him 10-15 minutes. The huge congregation/crowd of 60,000 people were restlessly chanting his name throughout. This was in anticipation of his “drive though” in the Pope mobile. All the priests waited patiently. Following the dignitaries the Pope mobile was backed into place. The Pope’s secretary then gestured that the Holy Father could go straight to the crowd of greet the priests. One has to remember he is a 77 year old man, he has just celebrated a taxing Mass, met people for nearly quarter of an hour, has half an hour of greeting adoring admirers and still there are “these priests” waiting. What would he do? He walked towards us with a loving smile we have come to associate with this caring shepherd. He was mobbed by us priests. I got within a meter of him, not that my ex-rugby days assisted in this exercise. He continued to joke, smile, stand for photos. He changed his zucchetto and finally move on to the awaiting papal mobile. I will never forget the feeling of love and warmth that this man exuded. Over 30 minutes later he was finally leaving the square.
The second experience was not one with the Pope in person. It is one many would be familiar with. During the Syrian, United States standoff last year, when war seemed imminent. Pope Francis called for an hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. It was unprecedented that the Holy father would call for prayer in such a specific way and a time. I was unable to attend St Peters square as I had a previous study engagements. I wasn’t missed as 100,000 people gathered at this truly amazing vigil. I was able to pray in the Church of St Agnus, of the famous Piazza Novona. Every church in Rome had adoration, people were praying everywhere. This was not only limited to Rome, from what I heard from friends back in New Zealand, some even got up in the wee hours of the morning to pray. After such an outpouring of prayer, it was not too surprising that the US did not attack Syria, finding a peaceful solution.
Papa Bergoglio, has been a constant source of rich discussion and, more often than not, surprise, for those who are blessed enough to live in Rome. This humble shepherd has led the Church and in many ways, the world, in such a way that even the biggest sceptics have been won over. Who will forget Time magazine naming him their Man of the Year. In a city into which all the roads of the world converge, one of the people who has travelled the furthest, a pilgrim all the way from New Zealand, counts himself among the most blessed! Viva Papa Bergoglio!
Fr Michael Gielen, is a priest of the Hamilton Diocese who is studying at the Gregorian University in Rome. During the Conclave and as Pope Fracnis was elected Fr Michael was interviewed by several New Zealand media outlets, giving us here in New Zealand a kiwi perspective on these exciting and historical events.