New information has been revealed of an experience in prayer which Pope Francis had shortly after his election, and which helps account for the apparent extraordinary freedom and spontaneity of his papal ministry.
The story begins with unreliable evidence. According to Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist founder of La Repubblica who interviewed the Pope recently, Francis told him that at the conclave, “before he accepted” the will of the College of Cardinals,
I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go way and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo countersigned it and then on the balcony there was the ‘”Habemus Papam”.
The problem with this account is that contradicts the story told by cardinals who were present — and confirmed recently by Cardinal Dolan of New York — that Pope Francis accepted immediately, in the Sistine Chapel, without hesitation, and certainly without leaving the Chapel. And as the Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli has pointed out, there are no rooms next to the one overlooking St Peter’s Square, which is located in the middle of a long hallway.
As result of journalists querying the veracity of Scalfari’s account, it appears that Scalfari neither recorded nor took notes when he met the Pope; and that what he later wrote was reconstructed from memory — a remarkable feat, perhaps, for an 89-year-old (for background on Scalfari, see Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith here), but not the best guarantee of accuracy. Fr Lombardi on 2 October confirmed that although the account was basically trustworthy — Scalfari showed it to the Pope before publishing — imprecisions such as the one above were possible.
Fr Tom Rosica, another Vatican spokesman, told journalists that Scalfari had conflated facts, details and sequence of events, and said that there had been no hesitation by Cardinal Bergoglio in accepting his election.
Fr Rosica confirmed that, after accepting, the newly elected Pope was then led to the “Room of Tears” to the left of the main altar of the Sistine Chapel where he removed his cardinal’s robes and was vested with the simple white cassock (and chose to retain his black shoes and pectoral cross). He was then led out of the Sistine Chapel to the Pauline Chapel where a moment of prayer took place before proceeding to the loggia for the “Habemus Papam” before the eyes of the world.
It was in the Pauline chapel that the experience of prayer occurred.
Amazingly, it was witnessed — and filmed (but not made public) — by Mgr Dario Viganò, director of the Vatican Television Center, who recounts what happened in an interview with Salt & Light TV in Canada.
And we could see the Pope leaving the Sistine Chapel and entering the Pauline Chapel. Very interesting that when
you see the images, the Pope is crossing the Sistine Chapel looking down, accompanied by Cardinal Vallini and Cardinal Tauran. He was looking down; he doesn’t greet the cardinals, as if he was carrying an enormous burden. Entering the Pauline Chapel, they had prepared a throne, but he does not sit on the throne. He forcefully takes the cardinals to sit on either side of him in the last pew. He prays in silence. At a certain moment, the Pope rises. He turns around, exists into the Sala Regia and at that moment he is a different person. It’s a person who is smiling. It’s as if he had entrusted the burden of this choice, as if God had said to him personally, ‘Don’t worry. I’m here with you.’ It’s a person whose is no longer downcast. His face is no longer tilted downwards. It’s a man who looks and asks himself what he needs to do.
The experience has profoundly affected Pope Francis, according to an unnamed cardinal John Allen has spoken to.
Recently, I spoke to one of the cardinals who elected Francis (not an American, by the way), who had been received by the pope in a private audience. The cardinal told me he had said point-blank to Francis, “You’re not the same guy I knew in Argentina.”
According to this cardinal, the pope’s reply was more or less the following: “When I was elected, a great sense of inner peace and freedom came over me, and it’s never left me.”
In other words, Francis had a sort of mystical experience upon his election to the papacy that’s apparently freed him up to be far more spontaneous, candid and bold than at any previous point in his career.
The evidence for the change which this experience has wrought in him lies, above all, in the dramatic contrast between the spontaneity, boldness, joy and energy of Pope Francis and the reserved, cautious, publicity-averse Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires (in Argentina, they are amazed he is the same man.)
Among the most noticeable shifts has been in his attitude to interviews. In Buenos Aires he famously never gave them. Yet as Pope, in just a matter of months he has given four, and in formats that give the least possible chance of preventing misunderstandings.
This apparently unpapal freedom in his method of communicating has further upset some conservative critics, who accuse him of imprudence, recklessness, and carelessness (see, eg, Carl Olson, who says his language is “muddled and unclear, even undisciplined” or Germain Grisez, who accuses Francis of “causing confusion”).
In some cases, these criticisms disguise the critics’ real objections — which is to what he saying, rather than how he is saying it. But there is inevitable discomfort at a very different model of papacy, one that threatens previous certainties. Like the daily homilies at Santa Marta, interviews like that with Spadaro or dialogues such as with Scalfari upset the time-honoured ways popes have traditionally communicated — in careful, scripted, prepared pronouncements that are intended to avoid ambiguity or misunderstanding. What status do these impromptu remarks have? Is it teaching?
Fr Lombardi says the unscripted remarks are a new genre of papal speech that is deliberately informal and not over-concerned with precision. And that new genre calls for a new hermeneutic — not poring over each sentence analysing its meaning, but recognising, instead, the dynamics of a human encounter. There are other means, after all, for definitive pronouncements where clarity is called for.
But what’s called for now is ‘dialogue’. Monarchs don’t give spontaneous interviews because they are by definition levelling. But Francis is rejected the monarchical idea of papacy, one that puts distance between the pope and humanity, clarity before warmth, dignity before accessibility.
He is convinced, as he said to journalists on the papal plane back from Rio, that this is a time – a Kairos — of mercy, when the Church is called to reach out, get close, and speak to the heart. Francis’s spontaneity, humility and accessibility are modelling this new approach, which was vividly on display during Friday’s visit to Assisi — as well as in his meeting with Scalfari.
The new papal style is inevitably discomfiting some, especially in the leadership of the Church, who are unsure what to expect next. The Pope is deliberately, even offensively, rejecting of what in the Scalfari interview he called a “Vatican-centric” view, distant from pastoral realities.
But it is a style immediately grasped by ordinary people. Pope Francis’s catechesis is not just through the homilies and weekly audiences, but in the hours he spends greeting, caressing, embracing the sick and disabled. He is modelling the Church as a “battlefield hospital”, rather than a fortress (designed to defend what is inside) or a court (obsessed with decorum and form). He is seeking to model a Church located on the margins, centred not on itself but on Christ, just as his reform is about bringing the ‘outside’ — the local Church — into the governance of the universal Church, through greater collegiality and synodality.
Nicole Winfield summarises the new approach in a series of headings: a Church that is ‘poor and for the poor’; that welcomes everyone, including non-believers; that doesn’t judge; that is ‘messy’ , and goes outside the sacristy; that works for peace, and cares for the environment; and that is reformed.
The seven months of the Francis papacy, in short, are a dislocation, which is necessarily causing a crisis of identity for some. Fr Carlos Galli, an Argentine theologian, tells the Buenos Aires daily La Nación that Francis “shifts the ground because, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother, who was always in the Church, who kept the rules and looked down on the rest, sees that the Pope is giving more attention to wounded people, represented by the younger brother.”
The parable of the Prodigal Son doesn’t relate what the elder brother did next — whether he remained outside pouting, or joined the party. And it’s hard to know what the reaction to Pope Francis will be from some within the Church, as the papacy deepens.
But no one doubts the Pope’s extraordinary boldness, decisiveness and courage in carrying out this dislocation. His stamina and energy are extraordinary: in more than 11 hours in Assisi he celebrated Mass, gave six speeches, prayed in nine different places, and met hundreds of people — including many sick and disabled.
Yet even more extraordinary than his energy are the freedom, peace and joy he exudes.
Now, at least, we have a better idea of where these all might stem from.