Pope Francis arrives for his general audience in the San Damaso Courtyard at the Vatican, Sept. 2, 2020. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA. Other photos: Vatican Media.
Tourists in Rome had an unexpected chance to see Pope Francis at his first public audience for almost six months.
People from all over the world expressed their happiness and surprise Wednesday at having the opportunity to be present at Francis’ first in-person audience since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
“We were surprised because we thought there were no audiences,” Belen and her friend, both from Argentina, told CNA. Belen is visiting Rome from Spain where she lives.
“We love the pope. He’s from Argentina too and we feel very close to him,” she said.
Pope Francis has been livestreaming his Wednesday general audience from his library since March, when the coronavirus pandemic led Italy and other countries to impose lockdown to slow down the virus’ spread.
The Sept. 2 audience was held in the San Damaso Courtyard on the interior of the Vatican’s apostolic palace, with a capacity of around 500 people.
The announcement that Francis would resume public audiences — albeit in a different location than usual and with limited numbers — was made Aug. 26. Many of the people who attended Wednesday said they just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
One family from Poland told CNA they found out about the audience just 20 minutes beforehand. Seven-year-old Franek, whose name is the Polish version of Francis, was excited he got to tell the pope about their common name.
Beaming, Franek said he was “very happy.”
Sandra, a Catholic visiting Rome from India with her parents, sister, and family friend, said “it feels great. We never thought we could see him, now we are going to.”
They found out about the audience two days before, she said, and decided to go. “We just wanted to see him and have his blessings.”
Pope Francis, not wearing a face mask, took the time to greet pilgrims as he entered and exited the courtyard, taking a moment to exchange a few words or to do a traditional zucchetto exchange.
He also stopped to kiss a Lebanese flag brought to the audience by Fr. Georges Breidi, a Lebanese priest studying at the Gregorian University in Rome.
At the end of his catechesis, the pope brought the priest up to the podium with him while he gave an appeal for Lebanon, announcing a day of prayer and fasting for the country on Friday, Sept. 4, after Beirut experienced a devastating blast Aug. 4.
Breidi spoke with CNA immediately after the experience. He said: “I really can’t find the right words to say, however, I thank God for this great grace he gave me today.”
Belen also had the chance to exchange a quick greeting with the pope. She said she is part of the Fraternidad de Agrupaciones Santo Tomás de Aquino (FASTA), a lay association which follows the spirituality of the Dominicans.
She said that she introduced herself, and Pope Francis asked her how the founder of FASTA is doing. The pope knew Fr. Aníbal Ernesto Fosbery, O.P., when he was a priest in Argentina.
“We didn’t know what to say in that moment but it was amazing,” Belen said.
An older Italian couple from Turin traveled to Rome specifically to see the pope when they heard about the public audience. “We came and it was a magnificent experience,” they said.
A family visiting from the U.K. was also excited to be at the audience. Parents Chris and Helen Gray, together with their boys, Alphie, 9, and Charles and Leonardo, 6, are three weeks into a 12-month family journey.
Rome was the second stop, Chris said, noting that the chance for their boys to see the pope was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Helen is Catholic and they are raising their boys in the Catholic Church, Chris said.
“Fantastic opportunity, how do I describe it?” he added. “Just an opportunity to refocus, especially in times like today with everything so uncertain, it’s great to hear words about certainty and community. It gives you a bit more hope and faith for the future.”