Friends proudly posted a great picture of Pope Francis on Facebook. They took the picture on August 21 as they walked by Casa Santa Marta, his residence just inside Vatican City. It shows him standing in the doorway. He has a beautiful broad smile and his right hand is raised as if he is motioning my friends to join him for a chat. This unexpected encounter must have made their visit to Rome.
That same day, early morning visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica undoubtedly experienced a similar thrill as they made their way to the Presentation Chapel for Mass. Praying before the tomb of Pope Pius X was Pope Francis. Even Mgr. Lucio Bonora, the priest who was scheduled to celebrate Mass was taken aback. Noticing Pope Francis Mgr. Bonora immediately offered to step aside so the Pope might celebrate the Mass. The Monseigneur was told to continue as previously arranged. To everyone’s surprise, Pope Francis joined the assembly for the entirety of the Mass even lining up with them to receive Holy Communion.
For a pope to participate in the Mass with the assembly may raise an eyebrow or two. To be sure, there are good liturgical and ecclesiological reasons why one would expect the pope to be the celebrant of the Mass. Attending Mass “in the pews” is highly unusual. But then again, this is not the first unusual thing we have witnessed during this papacy. We have almost come to expect the unexpected. It all started when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica dressed in a simple white cassock on the day of his election. After some brief words he asked everyone to pray for him as he humbly bowed his head in a moment of silence.
Since then he has done many unexpected things. He has washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday. He uttered the now famous words: “Who am I to judge.” He speaks of the sacraments as medicine for the sinners rather than an award for the saints. He prefers unity over uniformity. He encourages a culture of encounter and describes the church as a field hospital. He is not afraid to speak off-the-cuff and follow his heart. And when unsure asked a specific question he readily admits that he needs to study the matter in greater detail.
When I meet with people, be they parishioners or not the subject almost always turns to Pope Francis and what a blessing he is for the Catholic Church and the world. They mention his simplicity and humility. They don’t see him as a distant figure, rather they see him as one of them. They see him as the guy who stands in his doorway and waves at passers-by; the guy who sits next to them at Mass; the guy who washes everyone’s feet, no matter who they are; the guy who is comfortable meeting presidents but prefers to hang out in the favelas; the guy who challenges all of us to be better and does not humiliate us when we fail; the guy who never tires of calling us back no matter how far we have strayed. And he does all this because he believes this is what he ought to do as the Vicar of Christ in our world today. Moreover, he asks all of us to do the same as we too are called to be Christ to the world.
I am not sure if Pope Francis indeed motioned my friends to come over to him. And if he did I am not sure if they accepted his invitation. Regardless, looking at the picture I see Pope Francis motioning to me and to all of us inviting us to join him and live out the Gospel message in our world in all humility, with deep faith and profound love. Isn’t it amazing what a simple picture can evoke?