The Pope is inhumanely busy

I have been visiting various people in the Roman curia recently. They seem to have an interesting working week. They start quite early, but finish about 1pm for lunch, then pop in to pick up their coats around 4 or 5, before going home at about 6. The only afternoon they work is a Tuesday.

But there is one man who doesn't follow this Roman rhythm, and that is the Holy Father.

After the exhausting synod, which only finished on Sunday, the Pope had already managed by yesterday night to have held Masses and meetings with the Syrian Chaldeans (to whom he gave support in their time of trial), a conference of Army Chaplains (whom he reminded about the need for peace) and an enormous multitude of thousands of gypsies/travelers, many of them Irish.

I bought today's Avvenire to see what he said to them, and it is very interesting. He told them that of course society needed to fight prejudice against them. But he also said: enough is enough! There have been too many tragedies with your children (mainly to do with violence). Do not stop you children going to school! And also : you are the masters of your present and of your future. Do not give cause to society to think ill of you! He then spoke of the recent rise in vocations from the Romany community, including nuns, priests and one bishop. It was paternal, it was very much in touch with reality, and it was full of love.

The travelers loved it, although I guess the Irish didn't understand a word of it. I saw one traveler girl, her beautiful body trussed up in a tight, bright purple t-shirt and even tighter bright purple ski pants. She had masses of hair which had never been cut, her face dominated by very amateur eye-brow thinning and a what can only be described as a make-up massacre. We were in St Peter's a few days ago and she was coming out of confession, a tear in her eye and en enormous smile on her clumsy face. A day in a beauty parlour would have turned into another Sophia Loren. But I guess it will never happen. I met her again later, having dinner with four older ladies. They all ordered pizza, with lots of extra chips, and plenty of Fanta. The poor girl is not going to keep her figure.

Yesterday, I was strolling along near the Vatican and saw a man holding out a plate of small samples of pizza. Two enormous traveler ladies, just out from the Papal audience, were helping themselves to the whole plate of free samples, with the waiter powerless to stop them. They were Irish. A couple of men, also Irish travelers, sitting on the terrazzo at the same café, shouted out to them several times: "Oi! It's the ones like you that gives us a bad name!" These men, judging from their sharp appearance and the way they were studying the menu, must have been able to read the helpfully provided English translation of the Holy Father's advice at the audience ... but most of them can't in fact read (hence the insistence that they should not stop their children going to school.)

I remember years ago helping our priest teach traveler children for their First Communion. The day before the big day he asked them "who's that now, up on the Cross?". "Is it Joseph, Father?" the sparkiest little boy asked. There was at the same time a beautiful girl being confirmed, aged 18, prior to her wedding day. She could not read a word. Apart from a dogged attachment to her faith she did not seem to be able to enunciate many of its doctrines, and yet she was probably fairly unusual in this day and age in one other respect too: she was a virgin on her wedding day and she will never divorce her husband, whatever happens.

I served a funeral Mass for an Irish Gypsy King once. He lay there, stinking with untreated cancer of the intestine, in an open coffin, a blue silk gown on him and a crown, made of twisted corn. His wife, whom he had beaten many times, who had tried to hang herself on several occasions, and none of whose seven or eight children could read, stood by the coffin. When we tried to put the lid on, she screamed and wailed "My king, my king, my king!!" Nobody except the parish priest and I sang the hymns. A tape-recording of Johnny Cash accompanied the offertory collection, in which many large notes were thrown in the basket. Most did not come to communion. But at the sermon, the special Gypsy chaplain used the occasion (as the Directory for Funerals says you should) to encourage the people to come back to regular Sunday Mass.

Outside, after the Mass, there was a racehorse present (his Late Gypsy Majesty had owned half of it), lots of flowers and a couple of police vans. More ritual wailing ensued, and the police took a couple of lads, in beautiful black suits and ties, back into custody. The were serving life sentences for killing their relations.

I remember that a couple of months before he died the Gypsy King came to Church on Good Friday, with a whole entourage, all desperate to stock up on trinkets from the piety stand. The king knelt for a good half an hour before the Crucifix, after the service, praying alone. The lady who wanted to lock the church was starting to get rather cross. But the king of the Gypsies obviously had his priorities straight: he knew that he only had a short time left before he would meet his Maker.

A couple of lessons, from all this, perhaps:

Yes, there should be no unjust discrimination. But equally, any groups who are victims of discrimination should strive not to exacerbate their plight by becoming parodies of the stereotype. Not just gypsies, but also the new wave of immigrants. (And also, homosexuals ... does the Church really have to doctor its language so as not to upset the poor, sensitive luvvies? Come on guys, just man up!)

The other lesson is that the Pope is a busy and well-meaning leader. But he can sometimes get angry, and -dare i say it? - even nasty (he was never so nasty as when he witheringly accused some of his brother bishops of lack of charity the other day ..) but it is just his way; and then he hasn't the time to stop and think about the irony or oddness of some of his sayings. (Although he makes sure to do so when he is teaching solemnly, thank God). At least he cares enough to get angry. Beyond all this, he is just trying his best to reform everyone and everything, and that can be an exasperating role; even if it can make for an exasperating relationship all round. In a sense, I think he is trying to make up for some of the sins of omission and commission of his own youth, and he has said so himself. So perhaps he over-compensates.

But the man is like a machine. Everyone else in the Curia was taking a breather on Sunday and Monday after the exhausting Synod, but not the Holy Father. He had Chaldeans to console, army chaplains to turn into peace-makers, gypsies to encourage and berate. He needs our prayers, and our love ... I think that he is often frustrated with us, and we with him. It's just that we are not used to seeing that kind of leadership style. I think, in my leadership style as a Headmaster I am similarly frustrated and frustrating.  We just have to bear with each other, that's all.

The Italian papers today seem to signal that it is time to move on ... perhaps they jumped the gun on announcing big changes yesterday, and they admit it. They are now saying that we need to wait for the Pope to digest it all and come up with an apostolic exhortation about the Family, or something similar. And they are starting to read the whole of the Synod document and realizing that there is a lot there that will make a positive contribution to the Church's mission to families in the years to come.

So let's all just slow down, pray for the Pope, and remember that we all (absolutely no exceptions, even Popes and Cardinals, even bloggers) need to stay charitable and prayerful; because unlike the King of the Gypsies, we don't know when our hour will come. It could be tomorrow. So be ready.


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