Pope Francis' Week Ends with Visit to Saint Francis' Hometown of Assisi

"Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words." In a normal week, the visit of Pope Francis to Assisi, the Umbria, Italy, hometown of his papal-name inspiration, the 13th-century mystic Saint Francis--famed for the above quotation, despite there being zero evidence he ever actually said it--would have been the big headline out of the Vatican.

But this was not a normal week.

Longtime Vatican correspondent John L. Allen noted on Friday, Oct. 4 (the anniversary of St. Francis' death, his feast day, and the day of the pope's visit), "I've been covering the Vatican for almost 20 years, and aside from the two conclaves during that span, I'd be hard-pressed to recall many weeks with more breaking news than what we experienced in the last seven days."

On Monday, Sept. 30, Pope Francis met with his new advisory council of eight cardinals from around the world--nicknamed the "G-8"--that set April 27, 2014, as the date for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII (if you want to go to Rome that week, better book now). Also, there was a discussion of setting up tribunals around the world to investigate sex-abuse allegations, which could be helpful to dioceses lacking the resources or skills to do a thorough job on their own; and of a future synod on the pastoral care of families.

Francis also released a document on Monday making the G-8, a k a the Council of Cardinals, a permanent advisory body, to which he could add members at will.

At the same time, news broke in the Italian media about the publication this past week of "Bergoglio's List," a book by Italian legal and judicial reporter Nello Scavo. It recorded the identities and stories of people that Pope Francis, then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, helped shield or save from the Argentinian military junta in the late '70s and early '80s, when he was the Jesuit provincial superior.

It refutes early claims in the media that the future pope cooperated with the regime, which began surfacing soon after he was elected to the papacy in March.

On Tuesday, the Institute for the Works of Religion, a k a the "Vatican bank," released, for the first time in is 125-year history, an annual report certified by an independent auditor. This came after a gossipy story at the end of September in L'Espresso magazine hinted at an "earthquake" at the IOR. But rather than another steamy scandal connected to the bank, this story said, "In the Vatican, the unthinkable is happening. A deadly tightening up has been imposed...in the name of legality and absolute transparency."

While some details in the L'Espresso story are in dispute, the IOR did indeed release the report on Oct. 1.

Eclipsing this in the news on the same day was the publication of a Q&A with Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, the non-believing editor of Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Arranged by Francis himself in a call to Scalfari, the conversation was conducted in Italian at Santa Marta, the rooming house in the Vatican that the pope calls home. The interview came after Scalfari, in the wake of the papal encyclical "Lumen Fidei," the "Light of Faith" (co-written by Francis and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), had written an editorial addressing Francis on questions about Christian faith, and then a letter that Francis wrote in reply.

Incidentally, this letter to Scalfari appeared two weeks before Benedict penned another letter to an atheist. Although published in La Repubblica, it was addressed to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a mathematician who wrote a 2011 book called "Dear Pope, I'm Writing to You," a reaction to Benedict's book "An Introduction to Christianity." In the letter, Benedict denied Odifreddi's claim that he had covered up sex abuse by priests (a assertion backed up by this Washington Post piece) and addressed his criticisms of Jesus and Christian beliefs.

The initial release of the Scalfari interview with Pope Francis not only caught the Catholic world by surprise, it also caused shock waves through the Catholic (and secular) media and blogosphere, with commentators parsing the piece word by word. Shortly, though, it was revealed that La Repubblica's original English translation was sloppy at best.

Others took up the task of producing a more accurate translation, including Dutch Catholic blogger Mark de Vries. Starting with a careful Dutch translation by Father Roderick Vonhogen from the original Italian, de Vries then compared his work to the English translation and to the original, and the results can be seen here.

This didn't derail a flood of continuing comments and criticism regarding the content of the interview across the Catholic blogosphere--with Patheos Catholic editor Elizabeth Scalia trying gamely to keep the temperature down with updates and information--but issues with the piece didn't stop at translation errors.

While the pope, through spokesman Father Lombardi, has not taken serious issue with the content of the piece (which he did, to some unknown extent, preview), Lombardi did say that the text was "revised" and should be considered a "conversational" exchange, and is not to be given the same weight as a formal "magisterial document."

Apparently that distinction hasn't reached the mainstream media, which has paid much more attention to Francis' impromptus chat with reporters aboard the plane on the way back from World Youth Day in Rio in late July, and to the Scalfari interview and an earlier one with a Jesuit magazine, than to the new pope's many homilies, formal addresses and the encyclical.

Also, factual questions arose about a sequence of events during the papal election as outlined in Scalfari's article. La Stampa editor Andrea Tornielli asserted the events could not have happened as described and concluded the interview was "not a word-for-word exact reconstruction" of Francis' conversation with Scalfari.

In addition, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City, who participated in the papal conclave, confirmed that the scene contained in the Scalfari piece, in which Cardinal Bergoglio leaves the Sistine Chapel after the election but before accepting the papacy--a moment that led to him having a mystical experience--could not have taken place.

Said Dolan, "He never left the Sistine Chapel before accepting. All that came later."

According to Dolan, Francis didn't hesitate before accepting the papacy but did take a moment to pray before stepping out on the balcony to greet the crowds in St. Peter's Square.

After this, Vatican spokesman Father Thomas Rosica, who deals with the English-language media, confirmed Dolan's account to reporters by email, also writing that Scalfari risked "either missing some key details or conflating various moments or events recounted during the oral interview."

This happened, he wrote, because the 89-year-old Scalfari "did not tape his interview with Pope Francis, nor did he take notes, so the text was an after-the-fact reconstruction"--the result of an inquiry to Scalfari by Le Figaro's Rome correspondent, Jean-Marie Guenois. 

Rosica didn't deny the existence of the mystical moment but suggested it took place in the Pauline Chapel adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, after Francis accepted but before his first public appearance.

Confusions like this haunt the dreams of PR professionals who deal with independent-minded clients, and it has raised questions about who is advising Pope Francis and whether he's listening to advice or just going his own way. One also wonders, considering the pope's personal touch in arranging this interview with Scalfari, whether major American news outlets will make, or have made, inquiries about talking to the pontiff.

Interestingly, although he's a Jesuit, Pope Francis is proving as difficult to pin down and easily categorize as Saint Francis, whose radical religious zeal, fiery and enthusiastic preaching, devotion to the poor and otherworldly nature is often ignored and sentimentalized, reducing him from a transformative spiritual genius to a garden statue. This phenomenon is epitomized in the pretty and popular "Peace Prayer of St. Francis," which in reality can't be traced beyond its first publication in the French spiritual magazine La Clochette (The Little Bell) in 1912, some 700 years after the saint's death.

Francis wrote several prayers, apparently just not the one most associated with him.

But, despite the hoopla of the week, Pope Francis seemed relaxed and happy to be in Assisi.  The U.K.'s Catholic Herald wrote an as-it-happened account of the entire day. It began with a meeting between the pope and ailing and disabled children, during which Francis abandoned his written text and spoke movingly of how the children "share the wounds that Jesus bore."

He also greeted the children, as described by Vatican Radio correspondent Christopher Wells:

"His visit with the sick was particularly moving. As he stopped to meet each person, they would reach out to him, clasp his hand, lean in close to him and share with him their thoughts and feelings. One disabled child played with his pectoral Cross as the Pope beamed. Each individual encounter was a precious moment. And each meeting seemed more important than the greetings and speeches that have so far marked his various stops."

Before he left Assisi, Pope Francis also showed that he understood Italy's patron saint.

From his homily at the closing outdoor Mass:

"Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. Hardly! That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with the forces of the cosmos. That is not Franciscan either; it is a notion that some people have invented! The peace of Saint Francis is the peace of Christ, and it is found by those who 'take up' their 'yoke,' namely, Christ's commandment, 'Love one another as I have loved you.' (John 13:34; 15:12). This yoke cannot be borne with arrogance, presumption or pride, but only with meekness and humbleness of heart."


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