We were on our way to meet Pope Francis. We—the participants in the 50th anniversary meeting of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies—departed together from the Urbaniana campus and rode an escalator cut inside the Janiculum Hill that dumped us out in front of the colonnades of Saint Peter’s.
I walked with two nuns from the Order of the Holy Sisters of Zion. “A new pope doesn’t change your daily life,” said the Australian sister. “But the nice thing about this one is that he is more ordinary.” She recalled when Pope Francis conducted a mass in the Philippines under a torrential rain. He performed the sacraments while wrapped in a soaked plastic poncho, in front of thousands of Filipinos swaddled in the same soggy plastic.
I had watched the same Filipino mass on the news with my Italian friend. He took exception to the poncho. The poncho was undignified! He’s the Pope! He’s like a God! He’s not supposed to wear a plastic poncho! The nun nodded. “I’m sure other popes would have agreed. But Francis is a pope of the people. And we understand what he is saying in a way we couldn’t with the others. It’s welcoming.” The other nun laughed. “He’s so much one of the people that he’s a nightmare for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps. They never know what he’ll say.” I said, “But the Pope…he’s still Catholic.” Oh yes, reassured the Australian. You don’t get to that level without internalizing the party line. “He’s a Jesuit,” she said decisively. That settled things.
We were grilled by Italian police at the metal detector before we crossed the international state line into Vatican City. We were steered under a high arch and past a stony-eyed Swiss Army guard, scowling in velveteen pantaloons. We traversed a broad courtyard and the Pius IX portal, climbing up and up and up, ascending staircases that unfolded into more staircases. Each steep corridor was lit by broad windows that flooded the climb with brilliance. The illuminated ceilings grew more and more ornate. Behind me, religion scholars Father Thomas Michel and Jose Casanova chatted about Pope Francis’ personal schedule of waking at 4:30am to pray. “He prays for three hours before breakfast!” one of them said incredulously, as though this were the pope’s greatest sacrifice.
At the top of the fifth pontifical staircase we reached an elaborate dressing room where we were instructed to leave our coats. We filed into the reception room. It was a medium-sized ballroom with frescoed walls and ceiling. A hundred plush red-and-gold velvet chairs were lined up for the audience. I sat next to an Irish priest who glanced at me and said, “You’re the Jewess!” He recognized me from a comment I had made at the conference about my experience in interfaith dialogue. He said his study of Judaism helped him see Christian faith in a fresh light. He said, “When we study other religions, we study them with sympathy and enter them with faithful confidence, and see what God has been doing in that religion.” He quoted TS Eliot’s Four Quartets: “At the end you will come back to the beginning and see it with new eyes.”
We heard a rustle outside the reception room doors. Pope Francis was coming soon. The priest turned to me and said, “The people love him. They understand what he is saying. It’s totally new for the Church.” As an afterthought, he added, “He’s probably really jet-lagged from his trips to the Philippines and Sri Lanka. He just got back.” The priest was sympathetic, as if the pope were an overworked friend.
The crowd rustled and stood. It felt like a wedding, waiting for the bride.
Pope Francis entered: a vision in white.
His face is friendly, vivacious, sweet and warm. He is truly charismatic. You look at him and you feel known. His energy is gentle and wise and strong. He is jolly, round, and avuncular. He giggles a lot.
The attending cardinals perched him on the grandest red-and-gold velvet chair of all. The pope waited serenely while we, a motley crew of Catholics and Muslims and a Jewess, were introduced. He stood and read a statement about interfaith dialogue. He said that a humble and well-intentioned dialogue forged in love and commitment was possible between people. He urged us to assume the best about the people we meet. We have to try and listen and understand, without projecting our own understanding and morals onto the other. He told us that dialogue happens everywhere—in the grocery store, in the classroom, in the family home, within the same religion, within ourselves. He told us that dialogue doesn’t need a microphone. It needs an open and calm heart that stays grounded in its natural compassion. Dialogue needs a heart that understands the suffering and dreams of the other. When dialogue happens between different religions it can be a challenge—and this challenge can give us more rewards than we can imagine, if we can find the courage to open up and invest in the secrets and hopes of another mysterious human being.
I was so excited I almost couldn’t hear him. Maybe it was his celebrity. Maybe it was special lighting. Maybe it was the feeling of momentousness. Maybe it was my personal connection with his message.
When he finished his statement, the ushers—Italian guys in tuxedoes, not priests—called for the occupants of the first two rows to rise to meet the Pope. I realized only the speakers of the conference would be able to actually shake the hand of Pope Francis. I had already sternly lectured myself about releasing expectations for close access to the man in white. So I satisfied myself by watching him greet people.
It was indeed a satisfying sight. Pope Francis has the gift of intimacy. With each acquaintance he warmly met their eyes, clasped their hands, and listened to what they had to say. An interpreter was on hand for the Arabic-speaking Muslims. I watched Pope Francis intently welcome each of his guests as though we were old friends, with the utmost sincerity and friendliness, emanating hospitality and charm.
A collective effervescence alighted about his white mantle and hovered, even as he was swept out of the grandiloquent chamber to prepare for his next audience. The buzz remained. For ten minutes afterward we were all grinning at each other, airily breathing niceties—“Wasn’t that wonderful!” “To be in the same room as the Pope!” “He’s so kind!” “Oh how marvelous!” “What hospitality!”—and we floated down five glowing flights of stairs out to the Vatican courtyard where I imagine the Borgias parked their carriages.
Is it better for a Pope to be a God, or to be so ordinary that he would wrap himself in a cheap plastic rain poncho and shake a hundred hands, each with deep kindness and personable fervor?
Does his accessibility compromise his power?
I believe there is a Godliness in the ordinary that infuses every moment with sublime potential. I think of Mujerista Latina theologians finding sacredness in lo cotidiano—the mundane everyday world of soapy water and baby’s kisses. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer communing with the suffering Christ who understands brokenness and imprisonment. I think of the Dalai Lama describing the wonders found in the subtlest corners of life. And when I stand a few feet away from Pope Francis as he shines his real light on his guests—I must say that I see that the most sacred thing about him is his humanness.
If such a man can be just a man—then surely we have the same specialness about us. In his ordinary way he gives a glimpse of God-in-man, of sacred life shining out through friendliness and pricelessly genuine human encounter. In his simplicity and ordinariness, with his long clasping of hands and glancing in eyes, Pope Francis shows that each human bears dignity. He shows that dignity is free and it cannot be taken away or purchased.
A Pontifex Maximus swathed in wealth, power, and golden robes may glorify God—and also represents a God that is distant, aloof, concerned only for the 1%, unavailable to us. Humble Bergoglio, in his transcendently full presence, seems more Godly than a distant, untouchable Pontifex Maximus who refuses a plastic rain poncho. He brings God nearer in his very ordinariness. For me, he brings God to mind, and such a mental image draws questions and doubts aplenty. What is nearer to God than the hungry questions of a seeking heart?
They say that the everyday people understand what Pope Francis is saying. And I would wager that this Jesuit who devoted his life to humble study and prayer has an above-average sense of God. Surely, to understand another person, to stand together in shared meaning, to bridge the ordinary and the extraordinary—surely, that is sacred. To welcome, to accept, to love: surely, that is what God means.
The Pontifex is the “bridge-maker.” Pope Francis, with his central commitment to interfaith dialogue, is the maximal Pontifex Interfides. May Humanity be with him in his efforts.
Photo courtesy of the author.