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  • John Thavis

Pope Francis in no hurry to move into papal apartment

Rumors are swirling inside and outside the Vatican about where Pope Francis intends to take up residence.

The initial expectation was that he would move into the formal papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, the building where popes have lived for centuries.

But Pope Francis appears to be in no hurry. More than a week after his election, he’s still residing in the Vatican’s modern guest house, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he eats meals with others in the common dining room and can walk to some of his appointments in the Vatican.

Yesterday I asked the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, if the pope had decided where to live, and he said, “Let’s wait and see.”

When the new pope took a tour of the 10-room papal apartment a few days ago, he was said to have remarked, “Three hundred people could live here.” As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he chose to live in a small apartment instead of the archbishop’s mansion.

The Vatican earlier talked about the need for some renovation work before the pope moved into the Apostolic Palace. But the apartment received an extensive makeover in 2005 after Pope Benedict’s election, and it’s hard to believe Pope Francis would want to spend more money on redecorating.

There are arguments for the pope living in the Apostolic Palace, of course. He’s close to the Vatican’s diplomatic nerve center and several other major offices, he’s close to the formal meeting rooms where he receives guests and he has a bird’s-eye view from the window where pilgrims still expect to receive his blessing every Sunday.

If he were to stay in the Domus, which lies on the other side of St. Peter’s Basilica, he would effectively be out of the loop of the daily papal program, Vatican officials argue.

There are also rumors that Pope Francis could decide to reside in the empty papal apartment at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the pope’s cathedral as head of the Rome Diocese. (My friend and colleague Robert Mickens of The Tablet thinks that would be a great idea.)

Popes lived at the Lateran Palace for about 1,000 years before moving to the Vatican in the 15th century, and officially it remains the residence of the bishop of Rome. Since Francis has referred to himself as “bishop of Rome” far more often than he’s used the word “pope,” some believe he may make the move.

The Lateran apartment was refurbished more than 50 years ago for Pope John XXIII, who wanted to use it as a retreat house but never got the chance.

In my view, the important thing is not so much where the pope lives as how accessible he is to people outside the Roman Curia buffer. Popes – even popes who loved being among the people – tend to become isolated behind several layers of “protection” inside the Vatican. There’s the papal household that protects his privacy, assistants who oversee his schedule, security staff and top Vatican officials who guide his energies toward events that tend to focus on the clerical hierarchy and secular VIPs.

A pope who wants to be close to the people really has to make an effort to break through the Vatican bubble. Pope John Paul II did so by inviting people – yes, even lay people – to lunch. Pope Benedict XVI, a more private person, made fewer connections.

As an archbishop, Francis rode the bus and quite naturally mingled with people from all walks of life. As pope, he’s going to have to create new channels of communication if he wants to keep that up.

UPDATE: One sign that the new pope is doing just that: yesterday he invited 50 Argentinians to party with him at an impromptu celebration in the Domus. That’s what I’m talking about.

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