Humour, anecdotes and a laid back Pope on a rainy afternoon at the Vatican
ROME. Our appointment is at 4.30 pm on Thursday, December 4, at Saint Martha´s. It´s pouring cats and dogs. Taxis nowhere, as usual when there is a storm and Rome collapses.
Gerry (my husband, who will be coming with me and hopefully be my photographer) and I try not to panic.
The only thing left would be to go by car; we cannot be late. Fortunately there´s not too much traffic in town.
We made it to the Petriano Entrance at the Vatican, at the left of the Bernini colonnade. It´s dark by now. In the middle of the storm and the strong wind I open the window and tell a Swiss guard with an umbrella that I have an appointment with the Holy Father.
"I was going to take a taxi, but in this weather it was impossible to find one", I said, apologizing for having come by car. The Swiss guard smiled while a colleague of his carried out routine checks.
"Come in. Do you know the way?", he asked. "I do", I answered.
I park our beat-up car in front of Saint Martha´s House, under the shadow of Saint Peter´s awesome dome, which had already been lit up, by other vehicles with an SCV (Stato Cittá del Vaticano) license plate.
One of these is the blue Ford Focus that the Pope uses. I am tempted to take a historical photo of our old Honda Jazz by the Pope´s blue Ford Focus but it´s still pouring and there´s no time. We would rather be there a few minutes ahead of schedule.
It´s 4.20 pm, we place our soaking wet umbrellas in an umbrella stand at the door of the Vatican guest house for clergy and see that Francis, dressed in white but in his everyday clothes (without the white silk girdle and without his skull cap) is already there, on the ground floor. He´s seeing an elderly lady off.
We leave our raincoats with some gendarmes dressed in a blue attire, who usher us in gently. Francis approaches, smiling, to greet us. The three of us get into the lift and go to the second floor. Before entering his rooms, a Swiss guard stands to attention and salutes the Pope. The three of us answer back casually "Buonasera".
Suite 201 is the Pope´s headquarters, his main office, his bunker. The key is hanging by the lock. By the door we can see, on a chair upholstered in a greyish light green velvet, a very thin, creamy white woollen cardigan,which may just have got back from the Pope´s laundry. It´s exactly the same as the one I can make out under the sleeves of Francis´habit.
The suite has no luxury at all, the walls are white and the room is plain; a picture of Saint Francis, crucifixes, a minute statue of Our Lady of Luján and other virgins on some wooden tables with no ornaments.
Athe suite is made up of a small sitting room, a study, a bedroom with a huge bed made of dark wood and the bathroom. Before Jorge Bergoglio arrived, room 201 was used by renowned Vatican guests.
It is actually the room that the Orthodox Patriarch from Constantinople, Bartholomew I, used to stay in. With his usual sense of humour, Francis said to him after he was elected: "I apologize for stealing your room".
As usual, Francis had a most interesting morning. He received in audience Cardinal Severino Poletto, archbishop emeritus of Torino; Mozambique´s President, Armando Guebuza; the papal nuncio to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; the nuncio to Brazil; Argentine ambassador Juan Pablo Cafiero, on his farewell visit, and the Federation ofvolunteer Christian Organizations. He is in a good mood, laid back.
As I know he surely has other appointments after mine (he has turned into a workaholic), I ask him straightforwardly how much time I have. He immediately reassures me: there´s enough time, no need to hurry.
Francis has a bit of a cough as a result of last week´s trip to Turkey where he had to endure sudden changes in temperature: cold outside and hot indoors because of the intense heating.
During that trip, just as the other journalists in the papal flight, Gerry and I had the privilege of greeting him. On Tuesday, though at a distance, we also said hello to him when we were present at the historical signing of a Common Declaration by leaders of different faiths against modern slavery, at the Casino Pío IV in the Vatican.
That´s why, although I am about to interview the Pope, I am not nervous. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time, maybe that´s why it´s pouring.
I met Jorge Bergoglio in February, 2001, in Rome, when I had to interview the then archbishop of Buenos Aires for La Nación. He did not normally grant interviews but would make an exception with me because he was on the verge of being created cardinal by John Paul II.
So much has happened since then, so many years have gone by, so many meetings. The man that had always been Father Jorge now is Francis, and I, the author of "Francis, life and Revolution" ("Francisco, vida y revolución"), one of the biographies of the Pope that is changing the history of the Church.
We sat down in the light green velvet armchairs in the living room andFrancis started telling anecdotes, laughing and even stating on the record that he is still the same Father Jorge.
"Right from the start I said to myself ´Jorge, don´t change, changing at your age will be making a fool of yourself", he said and described in a nutshell his unique way of being a pope.
Time flies. The interview lasted about 50 minutes. Once it was over, we had time to chat and even to film a short video with my cell phone in which he greeted the first Alfaracito School graduates (the High School created by Father Chifri in the Argentine province of Salta).
"Pray for me"
When it was time to leave, Francis surprised us with a white bag. Inside it were gifts for our children, Juan Pablo and Carolina, "for them to play". He chose them from the hundreds of presents he gets in his daily audienced and which he recycles -just as he used to do while he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
When we left suite 201 there was another Swiss guard standing in the hall, who also stood to attention and saluted.
The Pope, who is getting ready to greet a group of teachers from the Pontifical Gregorian University who are already waiting on the ground floor, walked us out. Before disappearing behind the automatic lift door, he bids us goodbye with his usual "don´t forget to pray for me". There´s also time for a hug.