The pope was upstaged by the young child, dressed in a striped yellow shirt and jeans, as he talked about family life in Rome. The boy climbed onto the stage and refused to leave, at one point clinging to the pontiff's leg. As the pope began his speech in front of tens of thousands of people, he seemed not the least bit disturbed, smiling and continuing with his words. It was as if, as one wire service put it, the pope were his “indulgent grandpa.”
That's the exact sentiment another little boy expressed in Rome after the pope visited his parish in May. For a Christian Science Monitor cover story on Pope Francis and his global appeal which is hitting the stands this week, I visited the church to talk to members about how they felt in the presence of the new pope. One woman, Clementina Favoccia, said that her son told her after mass, “Mom, he felt like a grandfather.”
She herself said it felt like she was with a “close friend.”
Not everyone on stage with the pope Wednesday seemed as relaxed in the presence of the little boy who was clearly disrupting a scripted event. One tried to lure him off the stage with what looked like a piece of wrapped candy. It was not successful. He instead propped himself on the pope's white chair.
This kind of patience is something the pope has said he learned over time, according to his biographers Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. As the auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio once had a train to catch to a retreat at a convent on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. After finishing his work in the diocese, he had given himself just enough time to walk to the cathedral to pray for a few minutes before getting to the train station. As he left, a young man who appeared to have mental health problems approached him and asked for a confession.
He says he felt annoyed, but tried to hide it. Bishop Bergoglio told him to find a father to confess to because he had to go – even though he knew a father wouldn't be in right away (admitting to his biographers that because the man appeared to be medicated he probably wouldn't notice). The auxiliary bishop walked away, but then after a few steps turned around with a “tremendous sense of shame.” He recalled later that he was “playing Tarzan,” trying to do too many things, that he had “an attitude of superiority.”
Today he uses it as a lesson to “travel through patience,” he told the two Argentine journalists. “Traveling with patience is allowing time to rule and shape our lives.”
I had read the biography before taking my trip to Rome, which I scheduled to coincide with the pope's first trip to Assisi, the home town of Saint Francis, in whose honor the pope named himself. Towards the end of his trip the pope addressed youths, and many families with children who were mentally ill lined the streets to have their children hugged or kissed or touched by the pontiff before he headed inside the church for the event.
The entire day was carefully orchestrated, and almost all events started on the dot. But some of these families wouldn't let go. I was struck by how there seemed to be no annoyance or surprise at any of the emotions directed at him. If someone held on tightly, he just stayed with them a little longer, with a patient smile that seemed to convey that at that moment nothing else mattered.
I thought of his anecdote about needing to catch the train years ago. It seemed he was practicing well the lesson he says he learned, just as he did in St. Peter's Square yesterday.