On the surface, it may appear that the theme of this week at the Vatican was “reform.” The Council of Cardinals appointed by the pope to help him study and find ways to fix the Roman Curia – among other things- met for the first time this week.
The three days of meetings took place under the shadow of another historic event: Pope Francis’ visit to Assisi October 4.
The itinerary for the visit, which lasted about 12 hours, included the usual stops for papal trips: meetings with young people, the handicapped, and a Mass. It also included stops at the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare and the room where St. Francis stripped off his clothes and renounced his worldly goods.
The image of stripping oneself bare was a recurring theme. St. Francis literally stripped off his clothes, but it was gesture that symbolized his renouncing the worldly trappings of his wealthy lifestyle. Pope Francis repeatedly extended the invitation to everyone who considers themselves a member of the church to strip themselves of their own worldly attachments, which he said can lead to arrogance and pride.
While the location and the date certainly lent itself to speaking about simplicity of life, it was not the first time during the week that Pope Francis or the Vatican focused on the issue of simplicity, charity and sincerely taking other people into consideration.
On Thursday, when over 130 migrants died after their ship sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Pope Francis told a group participating in a conference about the encyclical Pacem in Terris, “Looking at reality today, I ask myself if we have understood the lesson in Pacem in Terris. I ask myself if the words justice, and solidarity are only in our dictionaries or if we work to make them a reality.”
Decrying the tragedy and social injustice behind it was not enough. Pope Francis offered concrete examples through his own actions and through his officials.
On Thursday the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published an interview with the Papal Almoner Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. The former Master of Papal Ceremonies who was appointed to his new role over the summer, said the pope gave him very specific marching orders. According to the archbishop, Pope Francis said “I don’t ever want to see you standing behind me at a ceremony, you are going to be a bishop who goes out among the people.” Krajewski is rarely behind the desk at his office. Instead he is out visiting seniors who are forgotten by their families in care centres, or going out into the neighborhood around the Vatican with young volunteers from the ranks of the Swiss Guards, handing out food and getting to know the local homeless. He said the pope told him handing out food to the hungry and handouts to the poor is not enough. People who have nothing, who have fallen on hard times, who have been forgotten by society, need a handshake and some friendly conversation just as much as they need food and shelter.
Pope Francis put that into action himself in Assisi. Normally on these papal trips, lunch is a totally off the record event in the dining room of the home of the local bishop. This time Pope Francis went to the Caritas centre where he ate with a group of locals who are currently getting help from organization. Cameras followed as a child grabbed him by the hand and led him to the dining room. He shook the hand of each guest, before leading a short prayer and sitting down to share the meal.
These gestures are a reminder that though one may not have the financial means to feed and clothes everyone who needs it, one can always offer a genuine smile and some meaningful conversation.