People of Rome take pastoral pope to their hearts

Small but meaningful gestures serve as signposts to the future

Pope Francis greets members of the faithful as he makes his way around St Peter’s Square yesterday.  Photograph:  Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Pope Francis greets members of the faithful as he makes his way around St Peter’s Square yesterday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty


It was the “ Buona sera ” on the night of his election that said it all. Papa Francesco intends to be more of a parish priest to the world than a semi-divine, absolutist monarch. Christ, he says, is the centre of the church, not the successor of Peter.

These first few days of his pontificate have been full of small but meaningful gestures. The informality of his greeting to the world on the night of his election and his simple recitation of the Lord’s Prayer had all suggested an “ordinariness” that contrasts sharply with his more reserved, more intellectual predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis has carried on from that start. When he was presented with a gold crucifix as he was robed on the night of the election, he reportedly said he would stick to his own iron crucifix. Media legend has it that at this point the new pope said that the “carnival is over”.

In reality, it is most unlikely that he said anything quite so crude but the metropolitan legend makes the point. Things are going to change around here, in particular in relation to the way the Bishop of Rome presents himself to the world.

Last Saturday morning, Pope Francis had an appointment with the world’s media in the Paul VI audience hall inside the Vatican. When he stepped out of the Domus Santa Marta where he has been living while renovations are being made to the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, he was astonished to find a black papal limousine waiting for him. After all, it is but a short walk around the corner from Santa Marta to the Paul VI hall.

No, no, he said to the security detail, I intend to walk and with that he set off for the audience. Remember, this is the pope who on the night of his election travelled back down to Santa Marta in the minibus with his cardinals, rather than use the papal limousine. One immediate impact of these little gestures is that some of those high-ranking Vatican prelates who previously would have thought nothing of ordering a car from the Holy See “stable” for work reasons are already reportedly careful about making such a request.

If the Vatican gendarmerie and the Swiss Guards thought that Francis’s insistence on walking to his appointment augured ill for their security operations, they had their worst fears confirmed next day when he said Mass at the little church of Santa Anna, just inside the Porta Santa Anna entrance to the Vatican.

The choice of the small Santa Anna church rather than the imposing basilica of St Peter’s for his first Sunday Mass as pope was in itself obviously significant. As was the fact that after the Mass, he stepped outside the gates of the Vatican to greet those faithful, tourists and curious bystanders who had gathered at the Santa Anna gate. Here, too, he proved himself to be a major headache for his security detail as he moved among the crowd, shaking hands with hundreds of people.

For many, he seemed to be behaving like a parish priest standing on the steps of his church to greet parishioners. That impression was confirmed later on Sunday when he said his first Angelus in St Peter’s Square. Here again, the Bishop of Rome appeared to be addressing himself in the most natural way to his flock when he opened up his short homily with a “ Buon giorno ”. Even more appealing to the Roman sensibility was the manner in which he concluded his homily by saying “ Buona Domenica e buon pranzo ” (Have a good Sunday and a good lunch). In a culture where it is simply rude not to say hello and goodbye on every occasion, be it at the post office or in an office lift, the “ Buon pranzo ” strikes a chord.