Meet the press.
ROME — At his first meeting with the media, Pope Francis continued to impress, charming the five-thousand-plus journalists in attendance with gestures of humility, his sense of humor, and suggestive comments about the direction he wants to lead the church.
He was introduced by Archbishop Claudio Celli, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Celli spoke in Italian and English, praising the press for the “positive role” it played “once again” in reporting the church to the world. He also highlighted the “freedom and autonomy of those who work in the media,” thanking them for “their human and intellectual passion.” The “diversity of media professionals,” he continued, “adds to our understanding of the richness of reality.” Francis listened intently from his chair, about twenty feet from Celli. And when the archbishop finished speaking, Francis stood and walked over to Celli to thank him for the remarks. (Popes don’t really do that.)
Francis spoke in Italian and from a text, though he ad libbed throughout the address — noting at the outset that “you have been busy.” Of course the press ate it up. But he also reflected on the difficulty of covering an event like the election of a pope. “The nature of the church is spiritual, not political…. Christ is the center, not the successor of Peter.”
Going off script, he explained how “the bishop of Rome came to call himself Francis.” As it became clear that he was about to be elected pope, his friend Cardinal Claudio Hummes comforted him:
“He hugged me. He kissed me. He said don’t forget about the poor,” Francis said. “And that word went in here,” he said, pointing at his head. “And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi…for me is a man of poverty, a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation. Right now our relations with Creation are not going very well.” Francis of Assisi “gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man who wanted a poor church,” the pope explained. “How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Some cardinals had joked that he should have taken other names.
“Ah, you should have called yourself Adrian, no, because Adrian VI was a reformer and we need reform!” And another said to me, “No, no you should have called yourself Clement.” But why Clement? “Clement XV — so you would have taken revenge on Clement XIV, who suppressed the Society of Jesus!”
But Francis also had a serious message for the world’s media. He spoke of “the trinity of communication: truth, goodness and beauty.” “We are not called to communicate ourselves…. The church exists to communicate truth, goodness and beauty.”
He concluded in rather stunning fashion. Instead of offering his apostolic blessing aloud, he gave it in silence, acknowledging (in Spanish) that “not everyone present is a member of the Catholic faith, and others do not believe.” He continued, “I respect the conscience of all of you, knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you.”
As he walked off stage, uproarious applause filled the room.