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'And another thing…'
From Saturday's Daily Telegraph
I’m not surprised that Pope Francis’s first meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury went well: these are early days, but this new pontiff is a media-savvy charmer in a way that none of his predecessors have been. Seriously, he could give Bill Clinton lessons in how to work a crowd.
And he’s just as effective in small groups or one-on-one. Notice how he described himself yesterday as just “Bishop of Rome”, a title he seems to prefer to that of “pope” – and this is music to Anglican ears, as well he knows.
We haven’t been told exactly what the Pope and Archbishop Welby said to each other in private, but I wouldn’t be surprised if His Holiness departed from his prepared message. He always does.
His morning sermons are often extemporised, accompanied by shrugs worthy of a harassed maître d’ and “huh?” noises that the Vatican press office has given up trying to render into English.
All very sweet – but what do we really know about Francis’s views? Well, he’s not a traditionalist like his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Indeed, he’s positively anti-traditionalist, not aggressively so, but in an I-can’t-be-doing-with-all-that-fussy-nonsense kind of way.
Consider, for example, what he said to a group of Latin American members of religious orders who sat with him in a circle the other day, none of the nuns wearing religious dress (Benedict would have been horrified).
Apparently, Francis recalled that one traditionalist group had presented him with a spiritual bouquet of 3,525 rosaries that they’d prayed for him. “Why didn’t they say 'we pray for you’… but this thing of counting.”
Now, it’s true that the devotional practice of counting rosaries is very old-fashioned – but they were said with love, and it’s just rude, Your Holiness, to diss the old ladies who counted them.
But did he actually say those words? The comments were taken from notes compiled afterwards by his visitors, and we can’t be sure of their accuracy. Something tells me that confusion over quotes is going to be one of the leitmotifs of this pontificate. “Did the Holy Father really say that Catholics have to throw away their iPhones?” “I think he was joking, but you never know with Pope Frank.”
When the former Cardinal Bergoglio was first elected, we were told that he was famous for not giving interviews to the Argentine press. To which one can only reply: who needs interviews, when he shoots from the hip all the time? Francis the Chatterbox Pope. A recipe for disaster, huh?
I don’t think so. He won’t undo the work of the great Benedict: it would create too much ill-feeling and, at 76, he doesn’t have time. Yes, there will be gaffes, possibly so many that we stop worrying about them. But if you listen to the Pope’s improvised talks, you quickly realise that his central focus never shifts.
Follow Jesus by helping the poor. Beware of the Devil, who wants you to spend all day distracting yourself with little treats.
This is not earth-shattering stuff – until you try to put it into practice. Jorge Bergoglio has a gift that eludes the boring, risk-averse platitude merchants who have captured the machinery of most Catholic and Anglican dioceses. He relaxes you with his smiles and shrugging, and then tweaks your conscience so hard that you wince in pain.
Don’t gossip, he tells us. That’s the one that really sticks in the mind. I can’t say I’ve followed that instruction to the letter, but every time I backslide, shall we say, I imagine Francis the Chatterbox tapping his watch and reminding me: you haven’t got for ever, you know.
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