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  • John Thavis

‘How I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor’

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.

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