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When actions speak louder than words: 10 Iconic gestures in 10 years as pope


Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

I.Media - published on 03/09/23

These beautiful, evocative images tell the story of a pontificate.

Pope Francis has made his mark from the very first hours of his pontificate with his actions and words. As the Argentine pontiff prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his arrival on the Chair of Peter, I.MEDIA has selected 10 gestures that shed particular light on the pontificate of the first South American pope in history.

1Pope Francis bows to the faithful on the night of his election (March 13, 2013)

The new pope had just appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and already his style stood out. Arriving in a simple white cassock, the Argentine pope made an unusual request: “I ask you to pray to the Lord that He may bless me.” Putting his words into action, the first pope to take the name of Francis bowed his head before the crowd of faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square and on the Via della Conciliazione, to receive the prayer of blessing from God. For about 15 seconds, silence descended on this historic evening. Eight years earlier, Pope Benedict XVI had made his mark by presenting himself as “a humble servant in the Lord’s vineyard.” His successor did the same, in his own way.

Election du pape François

2Throwing flowers into the sea in memory of drowned migrants in Lampedusa (July 8, 2013)

Pope Francis had only been installed on the Throne of Peter for a few weeks when he decided, for his first trip, to go to the small Italian island of Lampedusa to “mourn the dead” of immigration. Facing the sea, after a long moment of meditation, he threw into the water a wreath of flowers in memory of the thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean, a sea that has become a “great cemetery” due to this crisis. According to the UN, more than 20,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean from 2014 to 2020.

Pope Francis in Lampedusa – es

3Going to confession before the public (March 28, 2014)

This was obviously not planned. In St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis was guided by his master of ceremonies to enter a confessional and hear the confessions of the faithful. But instead of complying with the plan, the Argentine pontiff first walked towards another confessional where a priest was waiting. For several minutes, and for the first time in history, cameras and photographers could immortalize this scene of a pope going to confession. The objective was clear: to encourage Catholics to rediscover a taste for this sacrament where God forgives all sins. It is also in this perspective that the Pope would launch a Jubilee of Mercy the following year.


4Embracing the Russian patriarch in Cuba (February 12, 2016)

Nearly a thousand years after the great schism of 1054, the head of the Catholic Church met for the first time with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow. This historic meeting, which took place at the airport in Cuba, sealed the warming of relations between the two churches. In front of a large Byzantine-style crucifix, the two men embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks. The slow rapprochement between the two Churches would be brutally interrupted by the war in Ukraine. The disagreements generated by the conflict became patent when journalists reported that Pope Francis asked Kirill not to become “Putin’s altar boy.”


5Bringing 12 refugees from Lesbos back on his plane (April 16, 2016)

“We are all migrants.” In April 2016, Pope Francis wanted to make a mark on European consciences. While the Mediterranean is still the scene of human tragedies and thousands of refugees are in centers that the Pontiff would denounce as “concentration camps,” Francis traveled to Greece and visited a refugee camp in Lesbos with the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and Ieronymos, the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and all of Greece. On his return, he created a surprise by putting 12 migrants on his plane, including six children. The three Muslim families were from Syria.


6Embracing the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (February 4, 2019)

This was not their first hug, but the one in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019, in the Arabian Peninsula, is historic. For several months already, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb had been preparing a declaration on Human Brotherhood. Eight hundred years after the meeting between Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, the two religious leaders met to sign a text that advocates for peace and condemns justifying violence in the name of God. It was a powerful gesture that took place at the end of a decade marked in particular by the violence of Daesh.

In March 2021, Pope Francis would meet in Iraq with the greatest spiritual authority of Shiite Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.


7Kissing the feet of the leaders of South Sudan (April 11, 2019)

The 266th pope knelt before the two South Sudanese leaders, kissing their feet in a plea that they would support his plea for peace. In that month of April 2019, the uncommon image traveled around the world. With this action, which surprised even his closest collaborators, Pope Francis shone a spotlight on the tragic situation of a country that has known nothing but war since its creation in 2011. In the wake of this gesture, the Pope would travel to South Sudan in February 2023 with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to reiterate a call for peace.

8Praying in St. Peter’s Square during the COVID-19 pandemic (March 27, 2020)

It’s an image that will be preserved in the history books. On March 27, 2020, while much of the world was confined and the bells of Rome’s churches were ringing, Pope Francis stood alone in front of an empty and rain-beaten St. Peter’s Square. Millions of people in front of their screens watched him deliver a blessing Urbi et orbi, “to the city and the world,” in an apocalyptic atmosphere. A few days earlier, he had entrusted the city of Rome to the Blessed Virgin Mary, while Italy was suffering the effects of a then-unknown virus and the emergency services in the north of the peninsula were overwhelmed.

9Visiting the Russian Embassy (February 25, 2022)

The Pope made an unprecedented gesture in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. On February 25, just hours after the invasion, he decided to go in person to the Russian embassy to the Holy See to speak with the Russian ambassador. “It was a decision I made during a night of wakefulness, thinking of Ukraine,” he would later recount, saying that he was absolutely determined to do something “so that there would not be one more death in Ukraine.”

Other actions would follow throughout the year. On April 6, in the middle of a general audience, he kissed the Ukrainian flag that had just been sent to him from the town of Boutcha. There, corpses – some with their hands tied behind their backs – had just been discovered after the withdrawal of Russian troops.

10Bidding farewell to the coffin of Benedict XVI (January 5, 2023)

The image is unprecedented because never in recent history had a pope buried his predecessor. In St. Peter’s Square, the funeral Mass had just ended and Pope Francis was moving toward the basilica as he turned around to wait for the coffin of Benedict XVI. The Argentine pontiff first blessed it, then put his right hand on the cypress wood coffin and bowed. “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice [the voice of God, Ed.], now and forever!” This was Francis’ prayer for his predecessor at the conclusion of the homily he had given a few minutes earlier.


Pope Francis
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