Pope Francis lacks an army but has an extraordinary global reach. I came to understand that wedged among a throng of worshippers in the predawn cold heading for the Vatican. Many arrive by bus, about 500 buses on an average Wednesday, the day for papal audiences. People of all ages, holding children by the hand or pushing them in strollers, coming surely from every continent to sidle through tunnels beneath St. Peter’s Square.
Slowly they emerge into the sudden sunlight glinting off the square and make their way to security lines and waiting chairs unfolded in rows by the thousands just for the occasion. The square begins to fill by 8 a.m.—over two hours before the service will start.
The papal audience used to be a formal thing. Men wore morning suits and top hats; women were instructed to wear black unless they were a queen (queens could wear white). The protocol wasn’t officially ditched until the 1990s. Now pilgrims and tourists show up on a blustery day in fleece and rain jackets. A surprising number stick to business suits and dresses.
There’s plenty here to make a believing Protestant uncomfortable. Vendors on the edges of the square sell flags and magnets bearing the pope’s face, and there’s as much carnival atmosphere as moments for reflection and meditation. Pope Francis on this day arrived in the Popemobile and moved as if floating on air through the crowd, his friendly round face visible through the bubble-shaped Plexiglas. His homily was frequently interrupted by calls of “Vive, Papa!” It wasn’t for no reason that Luther emphasized the need to abolish the papacy, even calling the office held by Pope Leo X “the damned seat of Antichrist.”
But for the outside non-Catholic observer, a few things are worth pondering. The papal audience takes place every week, rain or shine. When I attended, on the day before the pope met privately with President Barack Obama, we had rain and shine, plus cold temperatures—yet over 50,000 people turned out. No one seemed to leave when the rains came; they just unfolded their umbrellas. As Easter and then summer tourist season approach, the Wednesday audience will swell to over 100,000. Do the math for a year’s worth, then consider: Millions of onlookers see the pope, seated on a covered stage in a high-back chair, read aloud from Scripture then give a homily.
The day I was there he read from Hebrews, then spoke of vocation and pastoral ministry. Each message was then read out in a variety of languages, the pope’s Italian (sometimes the first-ever Latin American pope reads in Spanish), followed by French, German, Polish, English, and Arabic. Special delegations in attendance were recognized, among them groups from Mexico, South Africa, Colombia, and Philadelphia. Pope Francis ends each time by receiving designated visitors, always including children and the disabled.
If you believe the Catholic and Italian press over the White House press, the next day’s meeting with Obama included a pointed discussion of religious liberty in the United States as it relates to Obamacare. A Vatican statement said the conversation centered on questions for the church in the United States, “such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection.” The White House said the two talked about the plight of the poor. Let both be right, I say.
Seven years ago then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio led Latin American bishops in drafting a statement on evangelism and the church that took Catholics to task for reducing faith “to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions …” and concluded, “We must all start again from Christ.”
Vatican expert and historian George Weigel contends that summoning the church to evangelism and reform goes hand in hand for Pope Francis with downsizing the papacy and its finances. We Protestants can and should take issue with the Catholic Church on key matters of biblical doctrine (like justification by faith). At the same time, speaking about the Bible to an audience of tens of thousands or an audience of one is something to watch.