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Universal Church up close

Opinion

All roads lead to Rome, they say. And from all the corners of the earth we came – Australia (just me), Macau, the Philippines, Latin America, United States, Canada, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Western Europe and Rome itself – to learn about ‘covering Catholicism in the age of Francis’.

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Some of us were from Catholic media and a few from the secular world of news but all were united in a desire to gain a deeper insight into the inner workings of the Church. What better place to do this than where Peter the Apostle founded the Roman Catholic Church and was subsequently crucified upside down, and at a time when his successor Pope Francis is embarking on a courageous program of reform.

Pope Francis at the General Audience in St Peter’s Square.

There was much to discover and discuss. Church officials from a number of dicasteries were quizzed on issues as far-ranging as Vatican finances to the seal of confession. Needless to say, in a room full of journalists there was no shortage of questions and the answers provided were refreshingly frank, even though they might not all be publishable.

The common theme of bishops, theologians and lay leaders of various descriptions was that Pope Francis is committed to being a pope of the people, vehemently opposed to clericalism and determined to bring it closer to the Vatican II ideal of a Church that is deeply involved in every aspect of the living world.

As Professor Paul O’Callaghan from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross explained on the opening day of the Church Up Close seminar, the Catholic Church has a clearly defined identity but it is always adapting to new situations and the circumstances of people. Once a Catholic always a Catholic was true, he said, in the same way that you don’t pick your mother; rather you receive from her everything you have and are bought into life by her. We are received into the Church which is bigger and greater than us. But, he added, the Church has always been a ‘pilgrim’ and constantly adapting itself to the world.

Professor Guzman M Carriquiry Lecour, secretary for the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and one of the highest ranking lay persons in the Holy See, spoke about his close friend Pope Francis. He acknowledged that it was a difficult time for the Church and that there were some people of goodwill who felt threatened by change but he said Francis had told him he was ‘very peaceful’ because he had the grace of office and the support of the Holy Spirit.

On a more personal note, he spoke of a phone call he and his wife received from Francis just one and a half hours after his election. “My wife was screaming Holy Father, Holy Father, it’s the Pope,” he recalled. When the professor took the phone, the Pope said ‘oh my God, what a mess, what a mess I am in’.

The humility of Pope Francis was evident when we attended the General Audience in St Peter’s Square and he warned against the ‘slavery of the ego’ which, he said, had the power to enslave one more than a prison does. But as usual it was his actions and his obvious joy in personally greeting so many of the people who had come to see him – from the sick and frail to the newlyweds and young children – that reinforced his ordinary holiness.

There were so many aspects of the universal Church presented to our group and so much history at our fingertips: the Venerable English College seminary with its English martyrs; the Doctrine of Faith room where the Roman Inquisition tried Galileo in 1633; the Vatican Observatory where we discussed the compatibility of religion and science, and even a visit to an ambassador’s residence to hear about the interface between the Vatican and foreign affairs.

Through it all, there were the friendships formed with fellow journalists and the learnings from what they are doing in their part of the world. The age of Francis is an exciting time to be a Catholic and it is our job to share that excitement with you.

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