First, however, let’s note that your bishops began their time together with a spiritual retreat. We took ourselves off to a house in the Alban Hills outside Rome. This area has for centuries been a place of retreat from the Roman summer heat and fever for all who could flee the city. The present Pope has dropped the practice of going to Castel Gandolfo for the summer months, badly affecting the village’s tourist trade, but we lived in sight of the papal palace there, up among the pine trees, at about the same altitude but on the other side of the old volcano’s caldera, the sparkling blue of the crater lake between us. Beautiful place. And it was a great time of quiet interspersed with “spiritual conversation” between us bishops, who all too often only have time to talk business together.
Back in Rome, on day one, we saw Pope Francis. I must remark in passing that it was an extremely hot and sticky day to be waddling across St Peter’s Square in full rig of black caped soutane and sash, and then past the queues for the Sistine, through the security and past the Swiss Guards, up the broad marble stairs, across a huge blazing courtyard, up two more flights of marble stairs and, finally, into the state apartments. Still, we were half an hour early. Word went up to the Pope who, characteristically, decided that since we’d arrived he’d start early so we could have more time together.
So, on we went, from the entrance area through the long gallery and, thence, the green room and the red room and the gold room and the blue room, for the papal palace was set up to impress, like any Renaissance prince’s pad, and to sort people by their importance, calibrated by which salon they could stand in while waiting for the Pope to pass through. Eventually we reached the papal library where Pope Francis greeted us one-by-one before we all took our seats in a long, open rectangle with the Pope at one end.
He loves conversation. Throughout the better part of two hours, Pope Francis was animated, smiling, thoughtful, direct, open, warm. He began by apologising that the air-conditioning wasn’t working and pointed out that there were bottles of water on the tables behind us and we should get up and help ourselves any time. Then he greeted especially Bishop Greg O’Kelly, not as a fellow Jesuit but as a bishop achieving the incredible feat of attending his fifth Ad Limina. O’Kelly would allude to this later when we were talking about the long delays in replacing retiring bishops. Then Pope Francis invited us to speak freely, to make whatever criticisms we wanted to make of the Pope or the curia. Strangely, when Pope Francis says that sort of thing, you believe he means it. And so it proved, later on.
Of course, I’m not going to write about all we discussed. But there are a couple of stories that deserve retelling, and are being retold all over the country. One bears on the matter of criticising the Pope. One of our Eastern Church bishops remarked that, while the Pope was meeting with Islamic and Orthodox leaders, he hadn’t gone to meet the Eastern Catholics. “You’re right,” Pope Francis shot back, “I must do more of that.” On another occasion, one of our about-to-retire bishops held forth for a while on ideas he’d developed over the years about reforms to the structure of the hierarchy. They weren’t, of course, the reforms every journalist knows we need, but really quite original. The Pope smiled and nodded and, pointing to Bishop O’Kelly, said: “I thought he was the Jesuit.” Then he spoke for a bit about the reforms he thought were needed and, thoughtfully, about the art of the possible.
Finally, one gesture that has been much talked of among the bishops. On one side of his chair the Pope had his really excellent English translator, and on the other side a small table with bottles of water and plastic cups. At one point in the conversation, Pope Francis leant around quite naturally, opened a bottle and poured a glass of water, just as you or I would do it, while still nodding and listening. Then he poured another. The first he passed to the translator and took the second for himself. It was the most utterly simple and natural thing that a nice, considerate man might do without thinking. And that is Pope Francis.