• John Thavis

The pope’s first Sunday: A multitude and close encounters

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.

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