Three years after Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United Kingdom, British Catholics and non-Catholics alike are coming to embrace the papacy anew in the person of Pope Francis.
It has been one week since the papal election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man whose simple and accessible language conveys his devotion to the poor, the infirm, and – first and foremost – his desire to lead all people to the merciful heart of God.
President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, was in Rome to attend Tuesday’s installation Mass of Pope Francis’ ministry as Successor of Peter.
He shared with ZENIT his impressions of the new Holy Father:
ZENIT: What were your initial reactions upon learning that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected Pope?
Archbishop Nichols: I was outside Westminster Cathedral with a couple of television crews, and they had one of their mobile vans. It was quite difficult to actually hear what was being announced, and I think I was as puzzled as anybody. The next 20 minutes or so were a bit frantic, trying to find out as much as we could about Cardinal Bergoglio.
But my reaction has been the same as everybody else. The taxi driver who brought us into Rome yesterday evening described his effect on the people of Rome. He just said “We are culpito di cuore” [struck to the heart].
What has clearly come across is that Pope Francis’ humanity shines through the office of pope. In fact, you could even say that his humanity illuminates the office of pope. And I think that’s what people are responding to; over and over again you hear those comments: “He’s one like us,” “He speaks to us directly,” or “He’s like a parish priest for the world.”
But I also think the content of what he’s saying is very important as well. Though just in these first few days, there’s a very strong persistency, it seems, in what he says about the mercy and forgiveness that is at the heart of God for each person. That’s very much the language of a pastor, the language of a priest who accompanies his people, and walks alongside them. Instinctively, this is very welcomed by those – not just of the Catholic Church – but by most people, all of us who struggle and try to do the best we can. These are very encouraging and uplifting words, and my impression of how people feel is that they are encouraged and uplifted.
ZENIT: Following Benedict’s visit to the UK, which had an enormous impact on the people there, from what we’ve seen over these past few days, what will the pontificate of Pope Francis bring to the people of the UK?
Archbishop Nichols: You’re right about the visit of Pope Benedict. I think it gave many people in Britain a chance to see him as he was. And, he left behind him an impression that is quite well expressed in the phrase: “He’s just like your favorite grandfather.” It was rather lovely to see, in St. Peter’s Square, at his last audience, that one of the banners said “Il nonno della Chiesa” [“The grandfather of the Church”]. That impression of Benedict – of his warmth, of his capacity to be almost intimate with people in the way he spoke – I think had a major effect in Britain.
So now, for the first time that I can remember, people from way outside the Catholic community are talking about “our pope.” The other day there was a BBC presenter who quite unselfconsciously spoke about “our new pope.” There was a Jewish MP in one of the discussion programs who talked about “our new pope.” There is kind of a sense of a relationship with the papacy, with the Pope, which is quite astonishing in Britain.
On that Wednesday evening when he was elected, one of the men who attends the Cathedral told me that he walked through the streets of London waving a papal flag as he walked to the Cathedral. He said the response on the streets was one of congratulations and shared joy at the announcement of a pope.
I think the two things are very closely related actually: the way that the people of Britain took Pope Benedict to their heart, and therefore the way they have welcomed Pope Francis.[Part 2 will be published Thursday]