In a city awash with pilgrims, and more places of prayer than you could shake a stick at, it was hardly surprising to find so many Irish in Rome this weekend.
Nor was there any surprise to find that most of those who travelled over were there to cheer on the Irish rugby team and not the new pontiff.
To be fair, none could have predicted the potential triumvirate of celebrations if we (a) beat the Italians (b) get to pray in the company of Pope Francis and (c) survive both occasions to celebrate the day of our national saint. That would be a hat-trick by anyone’s standards.
In fact St Patrick, like every good saint, will have his day marked in Rome, even if not within the walls of the Vatican. In the Scholar’s Lounge, on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (that’s one of the roads leading to the Vatican) you will find a watering hole that offers manna from heaven to every alcoholic Irishman.
Advertising “St Patrick’s Day at the real Irish Pub”, the Scholar will throw up its doors from 10am and promises “18 hours, non-stop” of endless paddywhackery and carousing.
In fact the first 20 people in the door will get a free pint of the black stuff and can continue drinking until 4am, when DJ Springer will finally call a halt to the revelling.
For those anxious to steer clear of this Irish stereotype, there’s the prospect of witnessing Papa Francis praying the Angelus from a window of the Vatican at noon tomorrow. Or there’s the call to get inside the walls of the Stadio Olimpico for those lucky enough to have tickets for the Ireland v Italy Six Nations clash.
One such lucky Irishman is Bobby Kerr, formerly of Dragon’s Den, in Rome this weekend with wife Mary. He travelled over on Thursday on the same flight as the Irish rugby team. “All the team are really lovely guys,” Bobby said. “Totally natural and friendly. They came across collectively as regular guys out to do a job.” And they flew economy.
Bobby and Mary were queuing for the Vatican, as was Barry Hill, an HR consultant from Ballinlough, Cork. He was there with 26 members of Old Christians Rugby Club, on a trip he organised six months ago. While rugby had brought him to Rome, he has a keen interest in religion and was happy to be there at such a significant moment in papal history. “I’d say Pope Francis will be a better manager of the Curia (the Vatican governing body) than his predecessor. And I like his humility. He can cook, he pays his own hotel bills, and instead of insisting on new papal garments, he had the existing ones altered. I like his style already,” Barry said.
Over at the sprawling Holy See media centre, the Pope’s spokesman, Cardinal Federico Lombardi, was anxious to give further examples of the new Pontiff’s humility. When he came for breakfast at Santa Martha House, where he and other members of the Conclave resided, he went looking for somewhere to sit instead of looking for “a special place of honour”. In addition, Cardinal Lombardi said, the new pontiff had indeed paid his own hotel bills. And instead of addressing his cardinals as “My Lord Cardinals” he had called them “My Brother Cardinals” in what we may imagine is part of an attempt to purge some of the pomp from the papacy.
Pope Francis also visited Caso Clero, where he had stayed on a number of occasions, to personally thank staff and inquire after their families, leaving many “in tears”, but in a good way, said Cardinal Lombardi.
Definitely not in tears was Barry O’Connor from Ballinlough, Cork, in Rome for the weekend with British fiancee Melanie Humphries. His rugby top was a good clue as to his reason for being there, but he was chuffed that the visit coincided with the appointment of a new Pope. “We’re here for the match, but it’s a nice coincidence. We got our tickets on line for €15, so we did well. It’s our first time in Rome and we’re really enjoying the atmosphere,” he said. His Ballinlough neighbour Barry Hill had another reason to celebrate. When he booked hotel rooms for the trip, it was €125 per night. The price has now gone up to €600.
A dozen Dubliners were equally overjoyed at their timely arrival in Rome. They included couples Eddie and Jean Coleman, John and Patricia Hussey and Louis and Susan Magee, among their number being two past presidents and one current vice president of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Patricia thought the new Pope seemed promising, “nice, and willing to smile”. While all six professed to being personally disappointed with the performance of the Catholic Church at home, they were prepared to give the new pontiff the benefit of the doubt. Louis said it will be interesting to see how he deals with the Curia. John reckons that handling the Curia will be the key to his pontificate.
Cardinal Lombardi seemed unsure. In fact it seems Papa Francis has caused a few flurries at the press office already because of his tendency to “ad lib”. The “cost of this spontaneity” Cardinal Lombardi said, was that they didn’t have texts of his speeches for journalists.
Today, journalists have been invited to a papal audience where we will hear the man speak for himself. There’s no place like Rome.
A TRUE ‘SLUM POPE’
For more than a billion Catholics worldwide, he’s Pope Francis. For Argentina’s poorest citizens, crowded in “misery villages” throughout the capital, he’s proudly known as one of their own, a true “slum pope”.
Villa 21-24 is a slum so dangerous that most outsiders don’t enter, but residents say Jorge Mario Bergoglio often showed up unannounced to share laughs and sips of mate, the traditional Argentine herbal tea shared by groups using a common straw.
People her recall how the Buenos Aires archbishop ditched a limousine took a bus to their little chapel; how he sponsored marathons and carpentry classes, consoled single mothers and washed the feet of recovering drug addicts; how he became one of them.
“Four years ago, I was at my worst and I needed help. When the Mass started, he knelt down and washed my feet. It hit me hard ,” said Cristian Marcelo Reynoso, 27, a garbage collector trying to kick a cocaine addiction through the church’s rehab programme.
“When I saw the news on the TV, I began screaming with joy and, look, I’m still trembling,” Reynoso said. “El Chabon (The Dude) is so humble. He’s a fan of San Lorenzo (the soccer club), like me.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Pope Francis had been wrong to say last year that Britain had “usurped” the Falkland Islands from Argentina, saying he respectfully disagreed with the new pontiff.
Argentine media quoted Jorge Bergoglio saying at a Mass last year to mark the 30th anniversary of the war over the islands between Britain and Argentina that the territory had been “usurped”. In 2010 he was quoted as saying it was “ours”.
When asked whether he agreed with the former archbishop of Buenos Aires on the issue, Cameron said: “I disagree with him, respectfully,” adding that residents of the South Atlantic islands had made it clear in a referendum earlier this week that they wanted to remain under British rule.
POPE’S FIRST LOVE
An Argentine woman who grew up as the neighbour of Pope Francis says she was briefly the object of his affections when they were 12.
Amalia Damonte, now 76 like the pope, still lives four doors down from where Jorge Mario Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires.
Ms Damonte says it was clear he was thinking about dedicating his life to God.
She says in a letter he left for her, the future pontiff drew a picture of a little white house with a red roof and wrote “this is what I’ll buy when we marry”. He added: “If I don’t marry you, I’m going to be a priest.”
Ms Damonte's parents were angered by the letter and ended the friendship.
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