Memo to journalists: When you write an open letter to the Pope, keep your cell phone charged. He may call to chat about it.
Yes, the “Cold Call Pope” rang again this week. This time, according to an Argentine journalist, Francis phoned to answer a column about candidates who seek campaign-boosting photo ops with the popular pontiff. Apparently, the Pope was persuasive. The call ended with the journalist, Alfredo Leuco, pledging to learn how to pray.
Pity the Vatican’s poor long-distance operator, no Pope has burned up the phone lines quite like Francis.
There was the Italian woman he comforted after she said she was pressured to have an abortion. There was the Argentine woman whom he reportedly instructed to take Holy Communion, despite the fact that her husband had been divorced from his first wife.
Francis called the Foley family of New Hampshire after the murder of their son, James, at the hands of ISIS last August, and he left a jocular message for Spanish nuns on New Year’s Eve. (He asked what they were doing away from the nunnery.)
Vatican officials are cautious about the calls, saying that the Pope’s personal conversations are his own business. They neither confirm nor deny most of his chats. But together, the calls burnish to Francis’ “man of the people” mystique, as if he was just another parish pastor, whose congregation happens to include nearly 1 billion souls.
The latest example comes from Leuco, a writer for Clarin, a Buenos Aires-based newspaper that has been at odds with President Cristina de Fernandez Kirchner, Argentina’s leader since 2007. Judging from the recent past, Pope Francis is no fan of Kirchner, either. When he was Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he and the President clashed over abortion, same-sex marriage, corruption and poverty.
Kirchner’s attitude toward Francis apparently has changed, though, since his election in March 2013.
According to Argentine journalists, the two have met — with photographers in tow — at least four times since March 2013. In his open letter to Francis, Leuco strongly urged the Pope not to allow a fifth, especially so close to Argentina’s general election in October. Under the constitution, Kirchner is not allowed to run for a third term this year, but some of her supporters are suggesting a constitutional amendment.
An exchange with journalist
Somehow, Leuco got word that Kirchner would visit the Vatican on June 7 and again pay a call on the pontiff, which he says prompted his open letter. (The Vatican says no meeting is currently on the Pope’s agenda.)
“A lot of people, perhaps a majority of my fellow Argentines, think that you’re about to make a mistake,” Leuco wrote to Pope Francis, “that you’re devaluing your word, which is as good as gold.” According to reports, Francis has said that he will not meet with candidates close to elections for fear of being used as a political prop.
“The picture of you that she will show off,” Leuco continued, referring to Kirchner, “does not help those who advocate for an alternating democracy and a republic.”
Regardless of whether the Pope meets with Kirchner, the fact that someone as powerful and popular as he answered an ordinary journalist will resonate with many Argentinians, said the Rev. Gustavo Morello, a Jesuit from Argentina who teaches sociology at Boston College.
“Even the people who will be disappointed with the pope if he receives the President, those people will have to agree that he is a cool guy.”
Morello also noted that Clarin, Leuco’s newspaper, has political points to score in this debate. Having the Pope turn down a meeting with Kirchner would be an embarrassment to the President and her party.
The Kirchner administration told CNN it would not comment on this story.
Leuco’s column sparked a huge response in Argentina. His name trended on Twitter and Kirchner’s supporters called for his head. No reaction, though, the journalist says, was as surprising as the call he received this Saturday.
Pontiff leaves a phone message
Leuco said he got a WhatsApp message from a Vatican official who said that the Pope had read his column and wanted to know the journalist’s email address. Leuco thought it was a prank, until he saw that the message indeed derived from Vatican City.
In a column posted after the phone call, Leuco gushes about his private conversation with the Pope, calling it “the greatest accomplishment of my life as a journalist.”
But Leuco says he almost missed the call.
Because of a bad signal, the Pope’s first call didn’t come through, so the pontiff left a message. “Mister Alfredo Leuco, I am Father Bergoglio, the Pope Francisco. I will try to call you later to thank you for your letter…”
Luckily for Leuco, the pontiff rang twice.
“I felt an incredible serenity coming from the Pope. I didn’t want to occupy too much of his time but he encouraged me to chat. I thanked him from my heart for his gesture. He spoke to me of the ‘moral wholeness of my letter’ and I almost fainted.”
Leuco doesn’t describe in detail how Francis answered the warning about political photo ops, saying only that the Pope offered some “measured comments on the way he was used politically and the problems that this has caused.”
As Morello notes, the politically savvy Pope may have his own reasons for meeting with Kirchner.
Leuco says he told the Pope he was being “massacred” on social media for his column and asked for permission to make the phone call public. Francis offered to send an email, Leuco said, so no one would doubt the journalist’s story. As they prepared to hang up, Leuco said the Pope asked the journalist to pray for him.
“I was ashamed, too shy to tell him I didn’t know how to pray,” Leuco wrote. But after the phone call, the journalist promised to ask a few friends to teach him.
In an e-mail Leuco says he received from the Pope following their conversation, Francis turned the journalist’s political challenge into a spiritual one. Leuco’s open letter, the Pope says, reminded him of one of the Gospel’s Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Meekness, that attitude so tied to patience, to listening, and contemplation, sometimes in the collective imagination it is confused with weakness,” the pontiff wrote. “But it is not so, in reality it is a virtue of the strong.”