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The Pope of Princes and Paupers


AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/11/15

The Holy Father ministers to everyone -- from royalty to the homeless

One of the most astounding aspects of the modern papacy is its increasingly universal appeal. As part of his regular round of duties the pope welcomes everyone. He greets prisoners and prime ministers, prostitutes and presidents, princes and paupers.

The extent of the pope’s reach was re-affirmed recently as he welcomed King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium. At fifty-four Philippe is one of Europe’s youngest reigning monarchs. He ascended the throne in 2013 after the abdication of his father, King Albert II. A fighter pilot, parachutist and commando, he attended the Belgian Royal Military Academy followed by Trinity College, Cambridge, and finally took an advanced degree in political science from Stanford University.

With a top-class education and from the highest level of society, King Philippe stands for everyone of privilege—the monarchs and millionaires, the celebrities and stars, the philosophers, philanthropists, presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state and leaders of nations. As the world’s first religious leader, the pope may not command economies and armies, but he commands the hearts and minds of millions. His power therefore transcends national boundaries and historical limitations. In symbolic terms the pope is the steward of the King of Kings and the earthly face of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In a serendipitous connection that Vatican watchers get used to, the recent visit of King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium coincided with the “visit” of another Belgian to the Vatican. Willy Herteleeter, who was over eighty years of age, was a homeless man in Rome. Well known to the Vatican staff and residents of the Borgo—the narrow streets outside the Vatican—Willy attended mass at 7 am every morning in the Church of St. Anne just inside the Gate of St. Anne.

If King Philippe was the Prince of the Belgians, Willy Herteleeter was the Pauper of the Belgians. Living on the streets, Willy pushed his belongings around in a supermarket cart. After Mass he would sometimes do a bit of street evangelization asking people when they had last been to Mass or gone to confession. After his death in December some friends tracked down his body to the city morgue, and because he was of Flemish background, they saw to it that he was buried in the Vatican’s ancient graveyard for pilgrims of Germanic descent. While Pope Francis was not involved in the decision to bury Willy in the Vatican grounds, he would surely have approved since he has always shown full compassion for the poor. Burying Willy Herteleeter in the Vatican cemetery fits with Pope Francis’ sharing breakfast with three homeless men, encouraging his clergy to “smell like the sheep” and taking the initiative of installing showers and toilets near the Vatican for the homeless.

Pope Francis’ welcome of both the princes and the paupers of the world leads to a further reflection on the universal embrace of Christ for the world. From the beginning of his earthly life, Jesus Christ was there for both the princes and paupers of the world. At his birth he was adored by both the magi and the humble shepherds. He ministered to the children of the rich, was hosted by the wealthy and dialogued with kings, yet lived as one of the poor with the poor.

Through his life and teaching Jesus spoke much about the difficulties and temptations of wealth and power and the blessedness of poverty and weakness. Although he was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus had no place to lay his head. Jesus himself was both prince and pauper—king and homeless man. By welcoming both the princes and the paupers of the world Pope Francis continues to show the gospel message that reaches out to both the powerful and the powerless, the poor and the rich, the princes and the paupers.

Furthermore the gospel constantly stands the standards of the world on their head. In Christ not only are the King Philippes and the Willy Herteleeters of the world welcomed, but in the upside down kingdom of Christ their places are reversed. When faced with Christ the King the greatest earthly king is reduced to being a beggar for grace, and when touched by the grace of God the lowliest beggar becomes an adopted son of God. In welcoming those from both ends of the earthly spectrum of wealth and power Pope Francis reveals the secret that in Christ we are all paupers in need of his great gift of grace and once restored we are all princes in his everlasting Kingdom.

Fr Dwight Longenecker blogs at Standing on My Head. Connect to his blog, browse his books and be in touch at

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