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When Pope Francis looked out his apartment window at noon today, he got a glimpse of what kind of excitement he’s generated in his first four days as pontiff. Well over 150,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square and the main streets running from the Vatican to the Tiber River.

I haven’t seen a cheering, flag-waving multitude like that in Rome since Pope John Paul II’s beatification.

The pope’s brief talk focused on God’s mercy, which has already become a theme of his pontificate. He said the Gospel’s account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) illustrates that the church’s role is not to condemn, but to forgive.

“Don’t forget this: the Lord never tires of forgiving. It is we who tire of asking forgiveness,” he said, to applause from the crowd.

Mercy, the pope said “is the best word we can hear: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

He gave a nice shout-out to German Cardinal Walter Kasper – “a very capable theologian” – and said he’d been reading a book Kasper wrote about mercy and how “it changes everything” for the person who experiences it.

The pope joked, “Don’t think I do publicity for books of my cardinals!”

Before ducking back into his apartment, he wished the crowd “buon pranzo” – Have a nice lunch! – not exactly a religious message, but one that resonated with every Italian.

A parish pastor

Pope Francis’ first Sunday Mass was not celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica, but in the tiny St. Anne’s Church – the parish church of Vatican City residents and workers.

Here, too, he spoke about mercy, and seemed to suggest that Christians today, like the people of the Gospel, have trouble living up to the teachings about forgiveness.

“We too, I think, are this people who, on one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other, sometimes we like to beat up on others, condemn the others,” he said.

“The message of Jesus is mercy. For me, and I say this with humility, mercy is the strongest message of the Lord,” he said.

The new pope looked every bit the parish pastor, delivering his sermon without notes and, at the end of the Mass, greeting every parishioner one by one as he stood outside the church doors in his liturgical garb.

It was clear that, although Pope Francis has a reputation of being camera-shy and reserved, he is a people person. He seemed to relish every one of the mini-encounters with the men, women and children in the parish, giving them each a few words, a kiss or a caress on the cheek.

Then he walked out to the street on the Vatican City border and delighted a crowd of cheering Romans, as his security staff scrambled to control the situation.

Hermeneutic of the Holy Spirit

The word “hermeneutic” is not on the tip of every Catholic’s tongue, but it was a significant term during the eight years of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. The word refers to an interpretive key, or a way of reading a text or event.

For the German pope, the church was divided by the way it implemented the Second Vatican Council, what he called “an unacceptable hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” vs. “a hermeneutic of continuity and reform.”

The word became almost emblematic of Benedict’s pontificate. So it was interesting to see Pope Francis use it – in a much different way – in his encounter with journalists Saturday. The “hermeneutic” of his pontificate, he seemed to be saying, is the action of the Holy Spirit.

“In everything that has occurred, the principal agent has been, in the final analysis, the Holy Spirit. He prompted the decision of Benedict XVI for the good of the Church; he guided the Cardinals in prayer and in the election,” he said.

“It is important, dear friends, to take into due account this way of looking at things, this hermeneutic, in order to bring into proper focus what really happened in these days.”

During the conclave, I noticed that none of the cardinal electors – including Cardinal Bergoglio, the new pope – had participated in Vatican II. I suspect that Pope Francis will be much less likely to use the council to frame the issues of church debate.

First tweet

Pope Francis has begun using the @Pontifex Twitter account, asking for people’s prayers today.

Pope Francis held his first meeting with the press today, and impressed them with what has become characteristic low-key charm.

Addressing several thousand journalists in the Vatican audience hall, he set his prepared text aside and told the story about how he chose his papal name.

As the vote moved increasingly toward the “dangerous” two-thirds majority, he said, he received encouragement from his old friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who sat next to him in the Sistine Chapel.

When he went over the two-thirds mark of 77 votes, Cardinal Hummes hugged him, kissed him and said simply, “Don’t forget the poor.”

Those first words to the new pope have remained on his mind, Pope Francis said. Looking out at the journalists, the new pope declared with emphasis: “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor.”

As the ballot-counting continued in the Sistine, he said, he thought of St. Francis as the saint of the poor, as the man of goodness and peace, as a man who “loved and protected creation,” the same created world that modern society has a hard time protecting.

And so he chose Saint Francis of Assisi as his new namesake. He added that other names were suggested to him – Adrian, after a famous reforming pope, for example. He said someone even jokingly suggested taking the name Pope Clement XV, to get even with Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order in the 1800s. (Pope Francis is a Jesuit.)

He had a couple of other thoughts for journalists, too. Reporting on the church is different from other contemporary matters, he said, because the church is essentially a spiritual organization that does “not fit into worldly categories.”

“The church does not have a political nature,” he said. That, too, was pronounced deliberately – no doubt the pope read all about the presumed political jockeying in the Italian newspapers during the run-up to the conclave.

He urged reporters to remember what he called a “trinity of communication” in their work: truth, goodness and beauty.

The pope’s blessing to journalists was unusual, to say the least. Saying that he realized there were non-Catholics and non-believers present in the hall, he would “give this blessing in silence, from my heart, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each person, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.”

Then, instead of the usual formal blessing – standard practice at papal audiences – he said quietly, “God bless you,” and walked off the stage.

That left some immensely pleased at the pope’s sensitivity, and others complaining loudly: “What kind of a blessing was that?”

Well, it was the kind of blessing Pope Francis wanted to give. And more and more, I’m getting the impression that this is a man who is not simply “getting used to being pope,” but who is coming into the office with clear, and very different, ideas.

As a postscript, when Pope Francis walked out of the audience hall, the papal limousine was waiting for him. But the pope waved it off and kept walking, happy to go by foot to his Vatican residence a short distance away.

  • John Thavis

A two-sentence communiqué from the Vatican today contained an important signal about Pope Francis’ intentions regarding the Roman Curia.

As is normal, the new pope has confirmed that Vatican officials will continue in their various positions donec aliter provideatur – “until otherwise provided.”

What was different this time around was the line that followed: “The Holy Father, in fact, wants to take a certain time for reflection, prayer and dialogue before making any definitive appointments or confirmations.”

That seemed a clear indication that changes are coming, and perhaps big ones, in the Vatican lineup.

As my friend Alessandro Speciale pointed out to me, when Pope Benedict was elected eight years ago, he issued a statement that re-appointed Cardinal Angelo Sodano as secretary of state, reconfirmed the secretaries of Vatican departments in their five-year terms and pretty much left everyone else in place, too.

Pope John Paul II took a similar approach. The idea was to reassure the Vatican bureaucracy that a new pope posed no threat to the existing order in the Roman Curia.

Look for something different from Pope Francis.

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