When Cardinal Tauran presented the newly-elected Pope to the world from the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica on the night of Wednesday, 13th March, 2013, Pope Francis explained his origins as follows: "You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth."
Just over three months later the same Cardinal Tauran invited me to Rome as one of ten delegates from the Catholic world to take part in a meeting of the 'Islamic-Catholic Liaison Committee', on 18th-19th June.
The Liaison Committee members and the international Catholic and Muslim delegates were given the privilege of a meeting with the Holy Father after the regular Wednesday morning public audience. It was a clear sign of the Pope’s commitment to and support of interreligious dialogue.
Minibuses transported us to the private audience hall in the Vatican. On the Pope’s arrival, Cardinal Tauran briefed the Pope on what we - the Liaison Committee members had been discussing. The heads of the respective delegations then introduced their members to the Holy Father. Prof. Dr Hamid Bin Ahmad Al-Rifaei introduced each of the members of the Muslim delegation, then Cardinal Tauran did the same for the members of the Catholic delegation.
When it came to my turn, Cardinal Tauran introduced me to the Holy Father as a Columban priest from Australia. I said to Pope Francis, "Your Holiness, I too have come to Rome from the end of the earth!" At this, the Pope burst out laughing and said, "Yes, but from the other part!"
I feel enormously privileged to have shared a laugh with the Pope. Filling the shoes of the fisherman is an awesome responsibility. Hopefully, our brief but humorous encounter had lightened his day.
This meeting for me was a profound moment, an experience of shared communion, two missionaries, from different ends of the world, meeting in Rome. Where is the centre of the Church? And where is the periphery? The centre of the Church is not Rome or the Pope. Neither are Latin America or Australia "the end" of the world. The heart and centre of the church is the people, wherever they are, in Asia, Africa, America, Australia or Europe, and our shared task as missionaries is to reach out to them, to accompany them, to be with them.
One of the gifts the new Pope brings to the Church and to the world is his joy in meeting ordinary people and his taking pleasure in the ordinary things of life. I am sure this wells up from his deep concern for the poor. Pope Francis is simple, humble, a man of the people, for the people. I have been blessed to meet him and I pray that he will continue to lead the church in the way of the Gospel in the days, months and years ahead.
Rev Fr Patrick McInerney is the Director of the Columban Mission Institute, Coordinator of its Centre for Mission Studies and the Coordinator of Missiology at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
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