Pope Francis welcomes littles one to the Vatican
The British actor Alec Guinness told the tale that when he was on location in a French village, playing the priestly detective Father Brown, and was walking home from filming dressed as a priest, a small boy of six or seven ran up, took his hand and walked up the hill chatting away happily in French. After a time the boy waved goodbye saying, “Au revoir, mon pere!” Reflecting on the delightful incident, Guinness said that any religion which would engender such innocent trust and joy in a child must be worthwhile.
I remember an old priest advising me, “Never trust a priest who is not loved by the children in his parish.” His judgement may have been harsh, but it is true that the best priests I have known have always been spontaneously loved by the children. Last weekend Pope Francis showed his own fatherly tenderness as he welcomed children from across Italy to the Vatican. “The Children’s Train” pulled into the Vatican train station laden with hundreds of children of detainees in the Italian penitentiaries of Roma, Civitavecchia, Latina, Bari and Trani.
In a charming two-way conversation, the pope welcomed the children with the same warmth and joy that Jesus must have shown as he took children and blessed them saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them!” Their conversation is published here. The children brought him a plant and soil from the catacombs of St. Januarius in Naples, and the Holy Father used their gift to speak to them of the need to see the light of Christ and walk within it. “Whenever there’s darkness, one is to go toward the light, he stressed. "The light. It is inside of us, always. Because the light gives us joy, it gives us hope." He also asked them how to make a better world, to which they responded: "With love!"
“And we go towards the light to find the love of God.” the Pope replied. “But is the love of God inside of us, even in the dark times? Is the love of God there, hidden? Yes, always! The love of God never leaves us. It is always with us.”
The day before he met the Children’s Train, Pope Francis welcomed a group of disabled children to a special audience at the St. Martha Hostel. On their way to the shrine of Lourdes, the children heard the pope speak about the difficulty of seeing children suffer.
Speaking from the heart, Pope Francis said to the children, “I accompany you as I am, as I feel. And truly I do not feel just a momentary compassion, no. I heartily accompany you on this path, that is a path of courage, that is a path of the cross… Many times, in my life, I have been a coward, and your example does me well. Why do children suffer? It is a mystery. We must call upon God like a child calling upon his father and say: “Why? Why?” and God tells us “Look at my Son, even He [suffered].”
Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have been blamed for not doing enough for the children who have suffered abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, but both popes have shown the compassion of Christ in meeting victims of abuse as well as homeless children, children with disabilities and those with social and educational problems.
In doing so they show the ministry that they share with Catholics everywhere. While it is horribly true that a few priests have abused boys and girls, it is also true that the majority of priests, religious and Catholic laypeople provide education, health care and social programs for millions of children across the globe.
Authentic ministry to children is at the heart of the Catholic faith because Jesus Christ himself teaches that “unless one becomes like a little child he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The story of the prodigal son also teaches us that at the heart of the Christian faith is the child’s relationship with the loving Father. St. Paul says we are “children of God” and children show us the precious gifts of innocence, joy and trust that are required if we are to encounter God the Father.
As usual, Pope Francis’ main gift as a communicator is through significant signs and gestures. His welcome of disadvantaged and disabled children not only echoes the tender ministry of Jesus Christ, but points the way to the authentic welcome that every Catholic anticipates as they are welcomed as children by the Heavenly Father.