ASSISI, Italy – It was clear from the moment that Pope Francis began his first visit to the town of Assisi that he would use personal, intimate gestures to send a strong message to the world at large.
Shortly after dawn, at the Serafico Institute, a religious charitable institution in Assisi that treats seriously disabled children, the pope stopped to greet every child gathered in the institute’s chapel – there were more than 100 in all – kissing some, bending an ear to a whispered greeting, making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those unable to speak.
Later, in the room where St. Francis famously stripped off his clothes to dedicate his life to Christ, living in poverty, the pope used similar warm gestures addressing a group of poor people challenged “by this savage world, that doesn’t give work, doesn’t help, doesn’t care if there are children in the world who are dying of hunger.”
Then, in an impromptu moment – one of several delivered Friday – he appealed to the Catholic Church and to all Christians to divest themselves of worldliness, which leads to “vanity, arrogance and pride,” because “it is bad for us,” he said. “It is the cancer of society and the enemy of Christ.”
With the world’s media as his megaphone – officials said more than 1,000 journalists were accredited for the visit – Francis spread a message that would have reverberated with St. Francis, who was entrusted nearly 800 years ago by God to “repair my house.”
The church and Christians everywhere must look to St. Francis as an example for their own lives, eschewing personal comfort to care for those less fortunate, the pope said. They must strive to become “instruments of peace” and not “instruments of destruction,” respecting everything that God has created, he said in his homily.
Referring Friday morning to a day of national mourning after the shipwreck of migrants off the island of Lampedusa on Thursday, in which at least 110 people died, the pope said: “Today is a day of tears. Such things go against the spirit of the world.”
From the moment Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio announced in March that he would be known as Pope Francis, he has repeatedly manifested his intention to follow in St. Francis’ footsteps. This came through in small gestures, like his decision to live in a guesthouse at the Vatican rather than in the more luxurious apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
It also came through in his intent. Since his election six months ago, the pope has initiated a series of measures aimed at reforming the church, reeling under years of criticism for the way it mishandled sexual abuse scandals involving the clergy, and under more recent allegations of mismanagement and corruption within its administrative bodies.
The pope has made changes within the Vatican hierarchy and has instituted commissions to examine the inner operations of the Vatican’s financial institutions, which have drawn the attention of Italian prosecutors.
This week, a group of eight cardinals picked by the pope to be his advisers began meeting at the Vatican to discuss how to make changes to the 2,000-year old institution.
Thursday, at the end of a three-day meeting, the Vatican announced that the cardinals planned to produce “a new constitution with significant new aspects” to regulate the curia, as the administrative arm of the Vatican is known.