The international Catholic journalists of the 'Church up Close' seminar in Rome had great seats up beside Pope Francis at the weekly papal audience on Wednesday. We were about 20 feet from him, at the top of the steps leading up to St Peter's Basilica, however, he was sitting under a canopy while we melted in the hot sun. And it was only 10am in the morning! When I say 'we' I mean a group of priests from Brazil to the right of us and young people from the United States to the left of us who were all getting redder and redder and using their flags, sweatshirts, and one of our party used a towel, to protect their heads.
But all of us felt honoured to be there and enjoyed hearing the various groups shout and wave when their names were called, mainly from below us in St Peter's Square. There were groups from Killaloe in Ireland, Nigeria, Malaysia, Western Australia, and many youth groups and parishes from the United States - Florida, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Virginia. There was a Green Affordable Housing Project from the United States - probably inspired by the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si. Many young people were there in preparation for the forthcoming youth synod.
Papal Audiences are held on Wednesdays if the Pope is in Rome, giving pilgrims and visitors the chance to see the Pope and receive the Papal Blessing, which is extended to families and friends. There were prayers and readings in many languages - including Arabic - and the service concluded with the Our Father in Latin. Our group sang it with great gusto but I couldn't see any young person who knew it.
Above us, lone swifts circled at speed, the last of these birds to fly back to Africa at the end of the summer.
Pope Francis had come in standing up in his popemobile, which moved throughout the crowd for all to see him close up and wave. At the end some of us hung around the exit where Swiss guards were lining up, and sure enough he drove right past us. When he was around three feet away I gave him a thumbs up and shouted, 'Laudato Si: Thank you'. He gave a thumb up back with his free hand and beamed, clearly loving the engagement with people. I feel he is in need of a bit of affirmation at this time, especially for his inspirational work to protect our common home.
Then, we were back into the seminar, learning about 'The Future of Vatican Communications', 'The Future of the Church in Africa', 'The Catholic Church and Ecumenism' and 'Economic and Financial Life of the Holy See'. What struck me most?
The Communications Office is working all the time on being user-friendly, and developing social media outreach, such as Twitter and Instagram. The talk on Africa from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (Propaganda Fide) highlighted the vitality of an African Church of 228 million people, but pointed out serious challenges. These included poverty and hunger - even in countries rich in resources, such as DR Congo - the manipulation of ethnic difference to fuel tension and conflict, and the mixing of the Catholic Faith with traditional religion.
Irish Bishop Brian Farrell focused on the Church's commitment to ecumenism, highlighting manyexamples of Pope Francis walking with and praying with such leaders as the orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Tawadros II of the Copts, and Archbishop Justin Welby of the Anglican Communion. Pope Francis has described the divisions between Christians as "scandalous" and Bishop Farrell felt initiatives such as January's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity "brings Christian unity to the forefront". A Scandanavian journalist suggested that the abuse crisis has prompted some to move to Protestant churches with women priests and Bishop Farrell reported that the issue of ordination of women has been on the ecumenical agenda.
I was particularly interested in a talk by Mgr Mauro Rivello, Secretary of the Administration of Patrimony of the Apostolic See (Holy See finances). After a presentation of figures and statistics - such as the upkeep of around one thousand properties in Rome - he said he was going to move onto the most exciting aspect of his presentation. I wasn't sure I was going to find it exciting but was soon sitting up. It was about ethical investment. The Holy See has developed strict criteria to ensure sound ethical behaviour regarding finances. It avoids investing in weapons, for example, or investing in fossil fuels, bringing it into line with an international movement to reduce investment in industries which contribute to the climate crisis. There is positive investing in renewable energies. I had the sense of a serious attempt to follow the Social Teaching of the Church and the directives Pope Francis has given in Laudato Si.
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