World News

09.08.13

He’ll Call You, Maybe: Pope Francis Is Surprising Flock Via Phone

Got a minute to chat? The pontiff has been reaching out via phone and letters, sometimes unexpectedly touching the faithful and even non-Christians. By Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Pope Francis has the gift of gab.

In his first six months on the job, the chatty pontiff has made more than a dozen spontaneous phone calls to the faithful and, in some cases, to those who have seemingly lost their faith. While the Vatican has dismissed reports first published in the Argentinean newspaper Clarin that Francis rang up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, few would have found it surprising if he had actually made the call. 

After all, this pope inarguably likes to talk on the phone. Late last week, Francis called up Anna Romano after receiving a desperate letter from her. The 35-year-old had written to “His Holiness Francis, c/o Vatican City” after learning that the father of her unborn baby was actually married with children of his own. Romano’s erstwhile boyfriend had insisted that Romano abort the fetus, but, as a staunch Catholic, she decided against it. She wrote to the pope to express her fear that no priest would baptize her illegitimate baby. The pope told her if she couldn’t find a priest to do it, he would personally baptize the child after it is born later this year. “I recognized his voice right away,” she told an Italian television station. “He told me I was very strong and brave to keep my baby.”

Earlier in August, the pope called 44-year-old Argentinean Alejandra Pereyra to offer his prayers. Pereyra wrote the pontiff asking for his support for her fear of retaliation after she reported a police officer for raping her at gunpoint. Before that, the pope called Michele Ferri, an Italian whose brother had been murdered, telling him that his letter brought tears to his eyes. In June, he called an Italian high-school student who wrote to him in angst about finding a job after she graduated.

After his election in March, Francis personally rang his news vendor in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription. He also called his shoe cobbler to let him know that someone else would be picking up shoes he had left for repair.

The talkative pope prompted Italian humorist and author Beppe Severgnini to pen a list of tips for what to do if the pope calls you. He suggests, “listen first, then talk” and certainly let him lead the subject matter. And if the conversation lulls, “ask about the recent Italy-Argentina soccer match.” Severgnini’s tips also include “don’t ask for favors” and “avoid touchy topics like Vatican scandals.” He also suggested that even if the pope insisted not to address him formally, try to use titles like “your Holiness” or even “your mega galactic.”

As expected, the pope’s frankness has also spawned a number of prank phone callers. The Vatican had to deny reports that the pope called Christophe Trutino, a gay French man who had written the pope about his struggles with his sexuality. According to Trutino, the pope called him to say “your homosexuality doesn’t matter.” But Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said “the pope never made that call.” Lombardi went on to say that the pope’s openness has also given some an opportunity to take advantage. “There is always the risk that people pretend to be the pope over the phone.”

The pontiff does not have a Facebook page, but he is an avid Twitter user with more than a million followers on his multi-language Twitter accounts. He has also written hundreds of letters to the faithful and to world leaders, including a letter to Vladimir Putin ahead of last week’s G20 summit, urging leaders to find a peaceful solution to the problem in Syria.

The pope’s break with protocol underscores an entirely new approach to leading the world’s billion Catholics. And his openness appears to be paying off.  On Saturday night an estimated 100,000 Catholics and non-Catholics joined the pontiff in St. Peter’s Square for a vigil for peace in Syria. The pope, who had called for all Catholics to fast ahead of the gathering, hoped to send a message to the United States and other world leaders that military action was not the right path to peace. “The pope is really trying to reach everybody, Catholics, other Christians, non-Christians, really anybody of good will,” Greg Burke, the Vatican’s senior communications adviser told The Daily Beast. Whether any of those leaders are listening is entirely another matter.