On the Feast of St Augustine, Pope Francis travelled to the Rome church called after the saint who once prayed, “Lord, give me chastity – but not yet.” His intention was to preside at the opening Mass of the Augustinian’s General Chapter. He also touched at least one priest’s heart, however, by his simple gesture of carrying his own mitre rather than having someone else carry it for him. Neither did the Pope travel in one of the luxurious papal limousines. Instead, he used the navy-blue Ford Focus which has, within the space of a few weeks, become his hallmark mode of transport. Heads of State (and even cardinals!!) might opt for the more spectacular and vastly more expensive Mercedes, but the Holy Father deliberately selected one of the least spectacular cars of the Vatican fleet – and moved at least one person by his purposeful sign of his ‘option for the poor’.
But Pope Francis has touched many hearts, one at a time, since his election. His former newspaper vendor and shoe repairer in Buenos Aires will surely treasure their papal phone call for the rest of their lives. No doubt their families, friends and customers (as well as the press) will be told and re-told of how he rang them to cancel his newspapers and to ask that the pair of shoes which he had left for mending be sent to the Vatican! Similarly, the hotel desk clerk who received the payment for Cardinal Bergoglio’s stay directly from the hands (and wallet) of Pope Francis will cherish a unique moment which will stay with him for ever.
There have also been other occasions when the Jesuit Pope has imitated St Ignatius of Loyola, who worked to win “one soul at a time”. Likewise, he has followed the path of St Francis of Assisi, not only in remembering the poor, but also in “speaking to a multitude with as much attention as if he spoke to a single person, and to a single person with as much care as if he spoke to a multitude.” Within the last few weeks, stories have emerged to show a man of outstanding thoughtfulness, kindness and sincerity.
At the beginning of July, thieves shot and killed petrol pump attendant, 51 year-old Andrea Ferri during a robbery at a filling station in the Italian coastal town of Pesaro. Andrea’s younger brother, Michele, wrote to the Pope, telling him of his inability to forgive the killers. Imagine the unexpected comfort and support that Francis gave to the family when he phoned Andrea’s mother and brother, to pass on his condolences. "He told me he cried when he read the letter I wrote to him", Michele said afterwards.
The following month, Stefano Cabizza, a 19-year-old engineering student from Padova, attended the Pope’s Mass on the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, carrying a letter he had written to the Holy Father. Handing it to a passing cardinal with the request that it would be given to its intended recipient, Stefano expected nothing more. To his amazement, three days later, Pope Francis rang Cabizza’s home, found him out, phoned a second time and chatted to the student for a full eight minutes!
Those are two families which have been changed for ever by a single unexpected phone call. Touchingly and unforgettably, there was no formality about the greetings. "Ciao, Michele. It's Pope Francis." The word ’ciao’ is so friendly and affectionate, the Italian equivalent of ‘Hello’ – the greeting used by family members and friends.
Whilst still on the theme of informality, the Pope recently posed with three young people who wanted a group photo with him using a mobile phone, making himself the first-ever Bishop of Rome to make a ‘selfie’. Little imagination is needed to imagine the many hundreds of times that photograph will be shared with others! Yet, at the same time, by his simple and spontaneous gesture, he gave three young people a “Wow!” moment which created an unforgettable moment of intimate personal involvement with the Church.
An Argentinean woman recently wrote to the Pope in despair after being raped by a policeman in Cordoba. The mother of six children and foster mother of six others, three of whom “have disabilities”, Alejandra Pereyra found her children repeatedly hassled after she tried to report an incident of police harassment. In her letter to Pope Francis, Alejandra told her story: “With all the pain I carry in my heart dear Holy Father, I ask you for your help because after all the talk of rape, they finally did it. One night in September 2008, around midnight, a police car turned up at our house and a policeman who presented himself as Police Chief Sergio Braccamonte, got out.” Mr. Braccamonte asked her to follow him to the police station but instead drove her to an isolated place “where he pointed a service pistol at my head and raped me.”
“When I heard the Pope's voice I felt like being touched by God", Alejandra commented shortly afterwards. "He restored faith and peace in me and gave me strength to carry on fighting." In that one conversation, Pope Francis offered love, hope and healing, not only to one suffering family, but also to the many thousands of rape victims across the world, degraded and traumatised by the lust of others.
Yet he has not only reached out to the suffering. Leandro Martins, a Brazilian cyclist on a 2,300 mile ride wrote to him: "I know I am not an important person, a Head of State, an authority or even a Catholic, but maybe I am also a sheep of God (or at least a neighbour of the Pope) and that makes me feel that if I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is possible, it really van happen. As everything I got in life, as this trip that was a huge impossible dream, but now it is happening. So I thought: why not try?" – and Francis met Leandro, chatted with him and signed the cyclist's Brazilian flag.
He wrote a thank you letter to Fr James Martin SJ when the priest sent him Spanish translations of his books, autographed a child’s plaster cast on her broken leg, gave a young man with Downs Syndrome a ride on the swivel seat in the Popemobile... It really does not take much to make a person feel special. The Pope has the gifts of intuition, compassion and spontaneity. He does not consider himself too important to pick up the telephone and chat to someone. This is what he meant by advising the bishops to become ‘shepherds who smell like their sheep’. By means of such simple gestures, he proclaims God’s Gospel of love from the rooftops, even to those who had thought themselves deaf to such a message.
The Pope who touches hearts one by one also wins hearts one by one.