A star-struck seminarian described seeing the new pope greeting the crowds in St. Peter’s Square for the first time. “He would bless and smile with a fatherly affection,” raved the seminarian. “He would lean to one side and then the other, so that everyone could say: that smile is for me.” The seminarian was Oscar A. Romero and the pope he described was Pius XII in 1939, but the words could apply to any pope as the master of the Piazza San Pietro. Since time immemorial, the Roman pontiffs had have put their personalized stamp on their ministry in the Eternal City. Tertullian refers to St. Peter himself baptizing converts in the Tiber River. Pope Francis has made his mark with his close-up interactions with the faithful, in particular, while driving through the crowds before his Wednesday General Audiences.
“Bergoglio has made contact with the crowds a focal point of his papacy,” writes Andrea Tornielli, a respected Vatican observer. “He spends a great deal of time among the faithful in St. Peter’s Square,” writes Tornielli. “During last Wednesday’s General Audience he dedicated almost half an hour to talking about contact with people and faithful.” According to the veteran Vaticanista, the faithful are very eager to see the Pope. “The wave of affection for the new Pope is undeniable, with requests to attend papal audiences skyrocketing,” he writes. John Allen, Jr., another Vatican correspondent, agrees. “Generally speaking, these audiences attract perhaps 10,000 people,” Allen writes. But Francis is different. “Today, however, Roman authorities estimated that Francis drew a crowd of at least 50,000, and perhaps as many as 80,000.” In fact, the crowd Allen reported on was one of the smaller ones noted by Church authorities, who reported even larger crowds. “People’s enthusiasm for Pope Francis shows no sign of dying down,” said a story over a month after his election, when “100 thousand faithful crammed into St. Pius XI Square—which is adjacent to St. Peter’s Square—to hear the Pope’s Wednesday General Audience.” At other times, authorities have closed-off the Via della Conciliazione—the road that leads into St. Peter’s—to accommodate the overflow crowds.
Part of the reason people come is that Pope Francis gives them something to see. “Over the stretch of these past two months, I have seen him engage in all sorts of off-the-cuff activities,” says Stephen Driscoll, a photographer for Catholic news media. “He has extended the popemobile route down Via della Conciliazione to reach the crowds spilling out of St. Peter’s Square, released two doves brought in a cage by a pilgrim, hung out of the popemobile to touch the hands of the faithful, flashed the thumbs up sign to people, traded papal hats and hugged and kissed people in the crowd.”
Here is a gallery of images that show Pope Francis’ special ministry in St. Peter’s Square. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)
|Pope Francis spots and acknowledges faithful holding up a Salvadoran flag and a picture of Archb. Oscar A. Romero, on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013 (the anniversary of Romero’s assassination).|
|At times, Francis declines to take a baby, making this gesture to indicate that the child is crying and the Pope does not wish to subject the infant to an unpleasant experience. On those occasions, he will bless the child from a distance.|
Francis physically leans out of his popemobile to touch the faithful.
Pilgrims lucky to get close enough are able to literally touch the Pontiff.
Francis stops the popemobile often, touching his driver’s shoulder to get his attention. On a few occasions, such as this one, he has actually left the car to approach the pilgrims.
March 19: on the day of his Inauguration Mass, Francis left the popemobile to greet a disabled man.
Apr 2: Pope Francis embraces 8-year-old Dominic Gondreau, who has cerebral palsy, before Easter Mass at St. Peter’s.
June 19: Pope invites Alberto di Tullio, 17, Down’s syndrome sufferer, to ride the popemobile.
May 9: Francis gives his zucchetto (skullcap) to a young girl who gave him one as a present.
May 29: Francis braves the rain, riding on an open top popemobile without an umbrella.
May 15: Pope Francis, former bird keeper, adeptly releases caged pigeons presented by a pilgrim.
June 16: The Pontiff blesses Harley Davidson afficionados. The encounter, says Card. George Pell, was “emblematic that we’ve got a different type of a pope. He’s a pope who very much understands the importance of symbols, and he’s inclined to talk through stories and parables.”
Parting shot: the Pope gestures to the faithful.
Forty years after first seeing Pius XII in St. Peter’s, Oscar Romero—now Archbishop of San Salvador—looked back through all the Popes of his lifetime. “Many of you, like I, can remember Pope Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI as very distinct human beings,” he said. “We see that the Popes have had distinct personalities as they have assumed this role of leadership in the Church,” he added. But the important thing is not the multiplicity of papal talents so much as the permanence of the Petrine ministry: “The true sign of this presence of God in his Church is the Pope.” (August13, 1978 Sermon.)