“Following Francis” is a monthly blog on the latest happenings of Pope Francis. It is prepared exclusively for The WorldPost by Sébastien Maillard, Vatican Correspondent for La Croix, Rome
ROME — On a late Thursday afternoon, in Rome’s historical district, a man stepped inside a local shop to get lenses for his glasses. He knew the owner of the shop well. “I don’t want to change the frames. Just new lenses,” he told him. The optician, who had made an original pair of glasses for him a year before, first gave him an eye exam. But while he was doing so, people started to gather outside to watch what was happening and take pictures. For the man inside, all dressed in white, wasn’t just any customer: it was Pope Francis himself.
His personal visit to who is now probably the most famous optician in town was not about making headlines in the Italian press the following morning and getting worldwide media attention once more. Nor was it just for the sake of getting out of the Vatican. It is true he feels locked up inside since his election in March 2013. “You know how often I’ve wanted to go walking through the streets of Rome, because, in Buenos Aires, I liked to go for a walk in the city, I really liked to do that! In this sense, I feel a little penned in,” he admitted in his first press conference and has repeated afterwards. “The only thing I would like is to go out one day, without being recognized, and go to a pizzeria for a pizza!” he acknowledged in an interview given for his pontificate’s second anniversary.
When the pope goes, just with his driver, to a shop in Rome, he’s trying to act normal as he believes any person should behave in the Catholic Church, whatever his position.
But there is more than this. When the pope goes, just with his driver, to a shop in Rome, he’s trying to act normal as he believes any person should behave in the Catholic Church, whatever his position. “We must get used to being normal,” he insisted during that same first press conference, where he was asked why he kept on carrying a black briefcase when traveling: “I was carrying it because that’s what I’ve always done. When I travel, I carry it. And inside, what was there? There was a razor, a breviary, an appointment book, a book to read, I brought one about Saint Thérèse, to whom I have a devotion. I have always taken a bag with me when traveling — it’s normal. But we must be normal.”
Master and servant
Since he started on one of the most unusual, if not abnormal, jobs on the planet, the pope has tried hard to keep that “normal” attitude as much as possible. He’s driven around in a plain blue Ford Focus, his window wide open. He has not moved to the Apostolic Palace but stays in the Vatican guest house, where he takes his meals at the cafeteria downstairs. This behavior is not just meant to set an example for the Roman Curia. It is a wider message to the rest of the Church’s hierarchy and to all priests, who in some developed and developing countries are used to being treated as masters.
Pope Francis, on the contrary, wants to remind that being faithful to the Gospel requires one to behave as servants. When he went to that shop for his lenses, the owner was the one who was supposed to come to the Vatican. This is how it had been first arranged. But that’s not how it happens according to Francis’ standards of normality. On flights, one can see him walk up the aisle and lean to speak to one of his collaborators some rows behind him. Under previous pontificates, this would have been the other way around: you go to the pope if he asks for you, he’s not the one supposed to come to you. His visit to a shop in Rome is part of his efforts to change the mindset and the attitudes of the clergy in his Church.
‘Pay what is owed’
“Please, Alessandro, let me pay what is owed.” That’s what Pope Francis said once he got his lenses changed, according to Vatican Radio. This is another important message of his short Rome-shopping: he insisted on paying. This also is part of his acting normally. He had done exactly the same the day following his election, when he stopped in the Roman clergy house, where he had stayed, to settle his room. Some weeks later, a priest from Verona visited him at the Vatican. The priest gave the pope a T-shirt sold for a charity, saying, “We sell them five euros but we’re glad to offer you one.” But, as the priest later explained, Francis took his wallet out of his white coat, handed out a ten-euro bill and replied: “Do you have change?” Fortunately, the priest had a five-euro bill with him. This depicts the way Francis wants the Church to behave towards money: pay what is necessary, no more, no less. He fights against “an unfettered pursuit of money.”
When he became archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he refused to buy new liturgical clothes and asked his assistants to simply adjust the ones of his predecessor, although they were far too large.
And against any wasting of money. Francis condemns over-consumption, as stated in his encyclical on ecology, Laudato’ Si, released in June. When he became archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he refused to buy new liturgical clothes and asked his assistants to simply adjust the ones of his predecessor, although they were far too large. When going to that shop in Rome for his lenses, he first warned he wanted to keep the frames as they were. Whatever his glasses, Jorge Bergoglio remains focused on his vision of normality.
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No Room for Decadent ‘Princes’ in Francis’ VaticanA ‘Homebody’ Out in the World Who Has Never Been to the United StatesA Day in the Life of Pope Francis, Who Lives Behind This Gas StationMoving the Church Forward on the Modern Family, One Step at a TimeHoly Ghostwriters: Behind the Pope’s Tweets and EncyclicalsIs There Life After the Pontificate for Francis?Why Pope Francis Is so Focused on AsiaIn Francis’ Vatican, the Homeless Get VIP TreatmentPope Francis Wants Women to Be Sisters, Not ServantsPope Urges ‘Every Person Living on This Planet’ to Take Action on Climate ChangeThis Is ‘Francisnomics’