March 16: Our First Encounter With the Pope

By Jeff Tyson

March 16, morning—

A new pope has many constituencies to reach out to, but on the third day of his pontificate, Pope Francis decided he needed to talk to journalists. In an address to 5,000 journalists—the members of our Columbia J-School class among them—the pope spoke as if the church and journalists were partners.

“You help us to see what reality is like,” Pope Francis said. “We’re trying to communicate truth, beauty, and goodness, together.”

Father John Wauck spoke to Religio staff Saturday morning about the new pope's election. Marie Telling / Religio.

Father John Wauck spoke to Religio staff Saturday morning about the new pope’s election. Marie Telling / Religio.

The pope’s comments were offered at a special audience for journalists at Paul VI Hall inside the Vatican. Since we did not have official Vatican credentials, we weren’t sure we’d be admitted, but we took our place in line and took our chances. The line, which snaked around the block from the entrance to Vatican City, included journalists from just about every corner of the globe. They carried notebooks, cameras, tripods, and microphones.

We filed into the Vatican past the Swiss Guards in their characteristic blue and yellow striped outfits and black berets. Inside Paul VI Hall– a grand auditorium where popes hold audiences when the weather outside is bad—more Swiss Guards flanked the stage, upon which were two massive white columns and an imposing bronze colored statue of Christ being resurrected.

When the Holy Father appeared, some in the crowd applauded enthusiastically while others tried to stay journalistically aloof from the excitement. But there was definitely a positive energy in the room. In his speech, the pope revealed more about his character, saying that he chose the name Francis so that he might emulate Saint Francis of Assisi.

“He’s a man of peace,” he said. “I want to be a man after his heart.”

And Saint Francis of Assisi also had a spirit of poverty, explained the pope.

“The Church should be poor too,” he said.

Pope Francis addressed the media in Paul VI hall on Saturday. Marie Telling / Religio.

Pope Francis addressed the media in Paul VI hall on Saturday. Marie Telling / Religio.

Following his talk, the pope allowed many members of the press file up on stage to greet him. He even let some hug him, a gesture that is very Italian and something rarely allowed by other pope’s according to Jeff Langan, a former University of Notre Dame professor who joined our group for the morning. Such a gesture, according to Langan, is one way Francis is ensuring his respect among the Italian people.

“I think [the Italian people] want to hug the pope, but they just never do,” said Langan. “But I think now that a few people have done it, now more people are starting to do it. It’s more natural in Hispanic and Mediterranean culture just to do it.”

In another significant moment during the greetings, a blind radio journalist approached Francis with his guide dog by his side. After greeting the journalist, the pope reached down to pet the dog in yet another display of his open and modest nature.

When Francis left the hall, we lingered inside, still taking in the scene we had witnessed. When we finally passed back through the gates of Vatican City, we did so talking about our incredible and unexpected opportunity to witness history.