A gentle drizzle created a spectacular double rainbow welcoming pilgrims from throughout the world to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for a glimpse of “El Papa,” Pope Francis. The occasion was the October 27 Papal General Audience, which was open to members of the public holding a ticket to the event.
The audience was taking place during the final week of the 2023 Synod of Bishops. It was the day Synod participants would receive the final draft of the document, a summary of their work that will serve as the basis for the October 2024 synodal session.
But for the moment, nobody seemed to care about the Synod. All those in the square, in particular parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte, Florida, were anticipating the appearance of the pope.
Cheers from the crowd signaled his entrance, the pontiff in his white Popemobile flanked by children who had been invited to ride along with him. He waved. He stopped to hold babies that he blessed and kissed. He shook hands with a lucky few.
“I got chills when I saw him getting closer to me,” said Jorge, a parishioner at St. Charles, who shook hands with the pope. “I never would believe I would have this opportunity,” he said with excitement in his voice.
Jorge said he had spent much of his 11-day pilgrimage through Italy volunteering to push the wheelchair of a fellow parishioner, whom he called Miss Mary.
“She had trouble walking. No one told me to do it. I just saw a need. I think being able to come face to face with the pope was a reward from God.”
“I cried,” he said.
So did Miss Mary, who shook hands with the pope, too.
The hundreds assembled all came with a passionate love for their pontiff and his efforts to make changes that would help the church become more compassionate, welcoming, and inclusive.
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about the pope in France,” said Guillium, a visitor from Paris at the audience with his wife, Amelie. “Everyone loves the pope.”
The pope also received high approval for his efforts to bring changes to the church through the Synod. These include issues such as allowing greater inclusion of marginalized Catholics, including members of the LGBTQ community. Other hot-button items under consideration included allowing women to serve as deacons and the possibility of a married clergy.
“I believe he is doing the right thing,” said Jorge. He added that he “[doesn’t] agree with some things like the LGBTQ philosophy,” but that gay persons should not be excluded from the church. “A lot of people we don’t agree with, but we are all brothers in Christ,” he said.
“I would like to see married priests,” said Emelio, 41, who was on holiday in Italy with his sister Claudia, 36. “Women over time should be accepted in higher places in the church, and the church should give more money to the poor,” he said.
“I would like to see priests less ambitious for themselves and to focus more on needs of people,” said Claudia. “And all should have access to the church, gays, divorced people, others. Todo el mundo,” she said.
“I would like to see priests embrace more the sciences that allow your mind to expand,” Amelie said.
“I’m happy to see changes,” said Michelle, who was traveling from Marseille, France,
with her teenage goddaughter, Emily, in celebration of her mother, Julianne’s, 70th birthday.
“Mother always wanted to come to Rome,” she said.
The pope “is really right. I would like to see him get more involved in world politics and influence world leaders to make the right decisions,” she said.
Outside of Vatican City in Carlo Felice Gardens, Salvatore, a visitor from Naples, was taking his newborn for an outing while his girlfriend, the child’s mother, a professional pastry chef, was taking a culinary class.
“Italy likes this pope because he is trying to include more people. Young people who do not practice their religion”—he admitting to being one of them—“are attracted to him.”
But not all are happy with Pope Francis, the first pope to be elected from South America.
In Venice it was expected that the next step for a bishop would be to the rank of cardinal.
“It was that way for many, many years,” said Patricia, a tour guide and native Venetian. “Not this time. This pope, he is not Italian. He did not promote our bishop to cardinal,” she said with a note of disappointment in her voice.
Back outside the gates of St Peter’s Square, Mike and Sarah from Brussels stood looking in, unable to enter without a ticket and unwilling to obtain one.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the pope or bishops say or do,” said Mike. “Religion is a private thing. For me, it’s just not my thing.”
“I have no opinion,” said Sarah. “I am not Catholic.” ♦
Peggy Schenk is a journalist who spent the bulk of her 30-year career writing for the New Haven Register in Connecticut. She currently is a stringer for the Hartford Courant. She resides in Florida, where she is a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Port Charlotte. Her report is the result of a recent trip to Italy with members of her church on a pilgrimage that ended with the papal audience.