Wednesday 21 February 2018

The unseen side of Francis, the People's Pope

Irish priest Fr Michael Collins has written several books about the Vatican and now he has turned his attention to Pope Francis. Here, he reveals what makes the Catholic Church's most powerful man tick

Children visiting from Naples swarm around the Pope to touch him and give him cards
Children visiting from Naples swarm around the Pope to touch him and give him cards
Pope Francis with his predecessor Benedict
Francis meets a couple who work for a charity that cheers up sick children
Pope Francis looks delighted as he is presented with a football jersey with his name on it from young German visitors to the Vatican
Francis waves to the faithful in St Peter’s Square during one of his regular public addresses
Irish priest Fr Michael Collins has written several books about the Vatican and now he has turned his attention to Pope Francis

Fr Michael Collins

Many of the 115 cardinals who elected as Pope the 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio after a two-day conclave on March 13, 2013 had little idea what they were letting themselves in for.

To be truthful, there was not a great choice among the elderly prelates.

"I said to myself," mused Pope Francis some time after his election: "'Hey, Jorge! Keep going the way you are. Anyway, you're too old to change. You would be ridiculous!'"

That transparency betrays the fact that Francis is highly political and has a clear idea of what he is doing.

Four months after his election, Francis made a one-day trip to Lampedusa, a small island in the southern Mediterranean. Ostensibly, the visit was to encourage the migrants from Africa and thank the islanders for their hospitality. But Francis knew that his brief visit would turn the spotlight of the world's media on the plight of the refugees.

Tomorrow, Francis starts a seven-day pastoral visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, countries which have severe economic and social problems. Once more Francis's visits to prisons, hospitals and rehabilitation clinics will focus media attention to problems that he wants to address. His recent encyclical on the environment and climate change is bolstered by his charity designed to end human trafficking, an industry worth €32bn annually.

While a little over two years is not long to measure a pontificate, this particular Pope has carved out a unique niche in modern papal history.

It began with the choice of name. No Pope had ever thought of calling himself after the radical and beloved Poor Man of Assisi. The choice reflected Bergoglio's evident concern for those who live on the margins of society.

People have quite strong views of the Argentinian Pope. Not everybody likes his style. Many decry the fact that he has streamlined much of the pomp and ceremony that surrounded the 2,000-year-old papacy.

When the new Pope decided to live in the bland Santa Marta guesthouse with 70 other priests, the residents were initially delighted.

To have the Pope in the same house, queuing up in the refectory for his meals, was quite a novelty. But that could not last.

Soon, it became like having the headmaster at the table. Several clergy are relieved when he occasionally has his meals behind a screen and has "working lunches" with guests. It also curbs the selfies because clerics have a sense of celebrity in the Vatican.

If there were a prize for plain speaking, Pope Francis would win hands down. He refers to some sour-faced nuns "who look as if they swallowed a lemon" and he berates some priests for their vanity. "Look at them! Like the peacock, they look great when they are coming towards you. But when they pass by, you get another view."

Pope Francis's penchant for plain speaking has also landed him in trouble. When he referred to some Catholics as "breeding like rabbits" and compared the illegal drug trade in his native Argentina to Mexico, he had to issue an apology.

But people seem to forgive him because they believe his heart is in the right place. When asked by a journalist about gay priests and gay people in general, he turned the question on its head and simply asked: "Who am I to judge?"

But Francis does judge. He has blasted the Mafia, excommunicating those who support organised crime. He has put metal into the spine of the Italian bishops and urged them to oppose the Mafia and their associates who have impoverished southern Italy.

Comparing the Church to a field hospital, Francis stated: "I prefer to have the Church out in the field getting dirty rather than staying nice and clean behind the lines."

After this time last year, I bumped into Rodolfo Felici at the Vatican. His family firm had been photographing popes for 152 years and he had featured in a book I had written on the Vatican.

He wondered whether the same publisher would be interested in a book on Pope Francis.

I duly met the publishers in London who made a mock-up and brought it to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The markets were enthusiastic.

Books like this usually start with a 10,000 print run. When the Pope announced his visit to the United States, the English-language order shot up to 50,000 and was simultaneously translated into Spanish, with other languages following.

I am very surprised at the interest in the book. Francis seems to be outstripping Pope John Paul II in popularity. I had the fortune to meet Pope John Paul II some 25 times and was impressed by his impish sense of humour and sanctity in equal measure.

I feel Pope Benedict got a bad press. A deeply pious man, his theological writings are unparalleled. But that giftedness did not prevent him from making unfortunate statements which undermined his reputation.

The Felici Studio donated the royalties of the book to help the poor of Rome, specifically to renovating a shelter for the homeless beside the Vatican.

I worked as a guide in St Peter's for six summers while studying to be a priest. I often wonder will Pope Francis dispose of some of the surfeit of art works to help the poor. If anyone will, surely it will be Francis, the People's Pope.

Fr Michael Collins worked in

Rome for many years. The

Dublin curate's latest book,

simply titled 'Pope Francis'

and published by DK,

explores the papacy. ÷ See

Irish Independent

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