By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY | Published August 15, 2013
I can personally recall one of the very early Wednesday audiences of the then-newly-elected Pope John Paul II that I attended, in which he casually strolled into the Vatican Audience Hall to the enormous applause of the standing room only crowd. He simply was a rock star—young, energetic, outgoing and teeming with charisma! The Church herself seemed to be alive with his dynamism and charm.
Several months before, I also had attended an early July Audience with the aging Pope Paul VI. He was a man carrying an incredibly heavy burden. His long cherished friend Aldo Moro, the former Italian Prime Minister, had been kidnapped and assassinated only several months before—which was a deeply felt personal loss. They had been close friends dating back to Aldo Moro’s university years when Father Giovanni Batista Montini was a young priest working in the Vatican Secretariat of State and helping out at the university student community.
Pope Paul VI wore the weight of his office with great dignity—but it was obviously heavy indeed. He shuffled rather than walked as he entered the Audience Hall. He was a man who was soon to meet the all Compassionate Father who would no doubt reward him for his heroic fidelity.
Papal transitions occur in both visual and formal ways.
We are now witnessing a wonderful new transition—unique in the fact that Pope-Emeritus Benedict is living a life of quiet prayer and solitude within the Vatican even as his successor is placing his own marks upon the Papal Office.
The Papal Audience Hall is now no longer the primary place where people can encounter the pope. The world of social media and cyberspace makes the planet itself the Audience Hall, and people throughout the world encounter the pope on an almost daily basis. This might explain why so many people already feel connected to Pope Francis.
It seems that everyone now feels close to the Holy Father. He is incredibly approachable—which may at this time give his security staff indigestion—but it is also among the reasons that he already enjoys such high regard throughout the world—Catholics and non-Catholics alike seem to feel close to him.
The Pope has now become the pastor of the world in a wonderfully visible way. Francis has given a new meaning to the title that he inherited upon his election as Universal Pastor of the Church. He is the type of pastor that many folks seemed to have hoped for perhaps without even knowing it.
He is capturing hearts by doing ordinary pastoral things—like celebrating morning Mass with the local folks, visiting the work sites of the Vatican employees and personally greeting them, standing outside the chapels of the Vatican and shaking hands with folks and kissing babies. In short, he is following the standard practices of all flourishing pastors throughout the world.
In the wake of too many recent church scandals and embarrassing revelations, local pastors still continue to enjoy the affection and trust of their parishioners. Church leaders beyond the local parish have often suffered a severe loss of credibility and trust—enter Pope Francis who has emphasized simplicity, approachability, a deep concern for the poor and a desire to reach out to those who live on the periphery of the Church and of society. Bingo! His success and reputation have simply skyrocketed. He is doing what every successful pastor does almost intuitively—staying close to his people. Works every time like a charm! May this new Pontiff draw many more people closer to the heart of the Church through his own deeply pastoral heart and simple style.