IT was a day to remember meeting Pope Francis in the Vatican audience hall last Thursday 18 March. He is a Pope like no other in his simplicity of life and would be more comfortable sitting on a bus in Buenos Aries or Rome hum-bly going to visit his parishioners than receiving pompous political delegations.
He is well known for his simple two roomed apartment in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the more lavish papal apartments. He is just an ordinary pastor and want to remain as such. But he feels penned in he says. A few weeks ago a news story described how he just went out of the Vatican with a few security men and went to an eyeglass shop, stayed an hour and insisted on paying for them himself.
That’s the ordinary pastor that our group of 42 church social action leaders came to meet and greet. We were a bit overawed by the sumptuously decorated Clement VIII audience hall. The Vatican’s grandiose buildings date from the time when Popes lost their way and became powerful princes with armies and sumptuous palaces rather than followers of the carpenter’s son.
He was a itinerant moral teacher, a person of the road traveling about without status or worldly power and who challenged a nation’s leaders to have mercy, compassion and do justice for the wretchedly poor people of God. Pope Francis is trying to revive a prophetic voice in the Church on behalf if the downtrodden and the marginalized and challenge the rich. Sadly too many of prelates, bishops and clergy have sided with the rich rather than the poor in the world today and Pope Francis is not their favorite. But by his example he will entice them back to follow and imitate Jesus the son of Joseph the carpenter.
When the side doors of the hall opened a previous group of elderly distinguish visitors of high status dressed in morning suits and tuxedos emerged in solemn procession.
They had been meeting the Pope in an antechamber and were making their exit through the hall where we were waiting. Everything was choreographed exquisitely. They were distinguished looking elderly elites. They appeared to be immensely satisfied superior distinguished and entitled. They passed in silence wearing gold chains; medals and ribbons. A squad of colorfully dressed papal guards lined up in front of us to form a ceremonial guard of honor for them not us. Then they were all gone.
After a few minuets later Pope Francis came in to meet us. He looked weary and why wouldn’t he after listening to some boring speech or conferring some award perhaps on the previous delegation. They are unavoidable duties of Vatican protocol.
From our group of simply dressed folks there came a spontaneous applause to greet Pope Francis and immediately he lit up, smiled instead of taking his chair he came over close to where I was sitting and he happily greeted Cardi-nal Veglio nearby.
He is head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people. Then Francis took his seat and the cardinal gave an introduction. There was a joke, Francis gave a cheerful laugh, and then he listened seri-ously as our work defending the dignity of the exploited and abused children and women was explained. But he knew it already.
This is a mission that is close to his heart and in the past on several occasions he made statements and has done a lot of action behind the scenes to make church, government leaders and officials wake up and challenged them to put ending human trafficking on top of their political and social agenda.
He has called for an end to human trafficking and exploitation of children and women who live on the street. They are the most vulnerable to human traffickers and exploited for prostitution.
He has been instrumental in getting the “end of human trafficking” on to the priority list of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals as number 8.7 of that prestigious set of documents. He may refer to it when he addresses the UN.
Pope Francis was well briefed and prepared and already knew that our symposium made up of international church delegates is to make a plan of action to get the church and civic leaders clergy and laity to join the fight against human trafficking and sex slavery and the abuse of women and children.
We knew from his words, looks and gestures that this rare and unusual meeting with us was a direct endorsement and support of our mission coming straight from the Pope himself. Getting the backing of this man of God and people with immense popularity and influence was the greatest gift for survivors of abuse and trafficking.
His words came from the heart more than from the text. He waved his arm, he gestured strongly and his face and voice rang with conviction and the power of love for the wretched of the earth.
“The often sad realities which you encounter are the result of indifference, poverty family and social violence and human trafficking…every child abandoned and forced to live on the streets at the mercy of criminal organizations is a cry rising up to God, who created man and worm in his own image. It is an indictment of the social system, which we have criticized for decades but we find hard to change in conformity with criteria of justice.”