Pope Francis
Pope Francis gives a thumbs up upon arriving to preside over an evening vigil with young people at the Campo San Juan Pablo II in Panama City, on January 26, 2019, as part of World Youth Day celebrations. Image Credit: AFP/Alberto Pizzoli

  • Pope Francis is the 82-year-old head of the Catholic Church. 
  • The first Jesuit to hold the post and the first from Latin America.
  • He is on his maiden visit to the UAE in its Year of Tolerance.


On his first day on the job, he refused to travel in the official armoured Mercedes sent to pick him up because he asked: “Do you mind if I go with my friends?” He wanted to get the bus with his cardinals.

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, is a man in love with his “Lady Poverty”, a parish priest at heart who offers his guards biscuits and chairs to sit, while on duty.

We need to give hope to young people, help the aged and open ourselves toward the future and spread love.

- Pope Francis

Renzo Cestiè, the Pope’s senior driver, told The Guardian how for the first few weeks, he reported for duty in expensive cars. Then the pope visited his garage, picked a blue Ford Focus and the smallest, most accessible Pope mobile. “For us it was a wonderful thing, the Holy Father so humble.” Now the Mercedes lies, stored away in bubble wrap.

Pope Francis arrives to attend a vigil at Saint Paul II Metro Park during World Youth Day in Panama City, Panama January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero Image Credit: REUTERS

And the change is not just in what he drives the pontiff around in. Cestiè has a great work-life balance with a six-hour shift. “The Holy Father wouldn’t want it. He is the first to say, ‘Why aren’t you resting today?’”

This consideration for others is explicit in all of the Pope’s actions. He has encouraged women to breastfeed crying babies in the Sistine chapel, regularly washes the feet of prisoners and the elderly on Holy Thursday, admonished priests, in brutal words, who refuse to bless children for social reasons to checking on the Swiss guard on duty outside his apartment at night if they had slept fine till they made him understand that they had no choice but to stay awake!

Pope Francis touches a toddler's cheeks at the end of the weekly general audience on January 30, 2019 at Paul-VI hall in the Vatican. / AFP / Andreas SOLARO Image Credit: AFP

He understands, humanity is his working code. He has taken the church from being a separate entity to something that is more in present and in in sync with reality. An example was his tweet from the recently concluded 16th World Youth Day held in Panama: “With her ‘yes’, [Mother] Mary became the most influential woman in history. Without social networks, she became the first ‘influencer’: the ‘influencer’ of God. #Panama2019.”

He was talking in essence about the moment Mary accepts the angel Gabriel’s word of her being chosen to be the Mother of Christ. Pope Francis has nine Twitter accounts in an equal number of languages with about 48 million followers, as per slate.com. He even launched the @clicktoprayapp, a worldwide prayer network, in early January – a first.

The 82-year-old Jesuit pontiff with a Twitter @Pontifex and Instagram @franciscus account has always worked on focusing how people use faith in their daily lives, on how religion acts as a moral guide to one’s actions and how the Church can be more inclusive. You only have to see him in action as he meets the crowds of worshippers in St Peter’s Square of the Vatican.

Pope Francis meets with newlyweds during the weekly general audience on January 30, 2019 at Paul-VI hall in the Vatican. / AFP / Andreas SOLARO Image Credit: AFP

The Franciscan connect: “…make me an instrument…”

On 13 March 2013, Archbishop and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the 266th Pope. And he chose Francis as his papal name in honour of St Francis of Assisi, because it communicated an idea of poverty while in the service of God.

He explained that during the papal election conclave when it became clear that he would be made the new head of the church, the Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes embraced and apparently whispered to him: “Don’t forget the poor.” This made him think of the saint, and hence the name – making him the first pope to be called Francis.

Pope with children
Pope Francis frees coloured balloons in the air flanked by two children during the Angelus, traditional Sunday's prayer, in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, 03 February 2019. Image Credit: Ansa/Massimo Percossi

There’s a famous prayer attributed to the saint, although its Franciscan authenticity is disputed:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Amen.

It essentially summarises what Pope Francis regularly attempts to promote through his worship, work, actions and words.

Pope Francis plays with a baby during the weekly general audience he held in the Pope Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) Image Credit: AP

Who is th St. Francis of Assisi?

He was born (1181/1181 – 1226) into a wealthy family, the son of an Italian silk merchant Pietro di Bernardone and his French noblewoman wife Pica de Bourlemont, in Assisi.

Spoiled for choice, he lived and spent well, till the day a beggar arrived at his father’s shop. Something shook inside him, and he went in search of the beggar once he had closed for business. Francesco ended up giving him the day’s earnings, resulting in his father’s fury.

But, this was just the beginning.

St Francis
St Francis was known for his love of nature and animals, often preaching to birds, and is the patron saint of the environment - each October 4, many animals the world over are blessed on his feast day. Image Credit: Supplied

As life continued, he enlisted in the army, ended up being taken prisoner for a year followed by serious illness, all of which made him question his way of living. Finally he lost all taste for it and turned away. He joined the poor in begging at St. Peter's Basilica, finally a vision told him to help repair the house of God. He took this as advice to physically repair broken down churches, for this he sold some cloth from his father’s shop. This did not go down too well with his father. It eventually lead to Francesco renouncing his father and his patrimony.

Left with nothing, he roamed the hills of Assisi as a beggar, finally a friend gave him, as alms, a cloak, girdle, and the staff of a pilgrim. As a penitent, he physically went about restoring many churches, rebuilding them by hand – brick by brick.

Eventually others joined him and he established the Franciscan order, which was eventually recognized by the Pope.

Later in life, after a vision, he manifested the stigmata or the bodily wounds filled with blood on the hands and feet, as suffered by Christ during his crucifixion – making him the first living person to do so. He was declared a saint in 1228, two years after his death.

He was known for his love of nature and animals, often preaching to birds, and is the patron saint of the environment - each October 4, many animals the world over are blessed on his feast day.

“Migrants and refugees: men and women in search of peace”

It’s been a long journey for Pope francis, especially as a Jesuit or a member of the Society of Jesus, a religious order dating from the 16th century.

Born on December 17, 1936 to the Italian couple Mario José Bergoglio and Regina María Sívori, in Buenos Aires, he was the eldest of five children. The family had fled Italy to escape fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s rule.

...a dawn of peace, seeds of rebirth amid the devastation of death, echoes of dialogue resounding unceasingly...

- Pope Francis

A chemical technician by profession, he enjoyed the tango, worked as a bar bouncer and janitor before finding his calling, after being inspired by a local priest. He joined a seminary for three years and then the Jesuits as a novice in 1958.

The Pope has talked about how as a young seminarian he developed a liking for a girl he met, which did create doubts in his mind about following the chosen path. It was a short-lived crisis. In 1960, he became a Jesuit officially and took the perpetual vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience”.

The faithful greet and take photos of Pope Francis (C) as he arrives for the weekly general audience at Paul-VI hall on January 30, 2019 at the Vatican. / AFP / Andreas SOLARO Image Credit: AFP

As his order does an immense body of work in education, he went on to learn and teach, literature and psychology. In 1969, he was ordained into priesthood.

His education progressed, and he became a professor of theology. In 1998, Bergoglio became Metropolitan Archbishop of Buenos Aires. This was a phase wherein the wider world got a measure of his personal belief system. He set up pro-life initiatives, a commission on divorces, increased the number of priests assigned to work with the poor and cut off the church’s spending. He even earned himself the moniker “Slum Bishop”.

Pope to UAE
Pope Francis arrives to speak to reporters aboard a plane on the way to Abu Dhabi, February 3, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

“…none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice… “

This was in tandem with his being made a cardinal of San Roberto Bellarmino, a Jesuit church, by Pope John Paul II in 2001. His love of “Lady Poverty” manifested even more. He lived in a small apartment, took public transport and made his own food. The affluent senior clergyman existence was not him. He became known for his humility and commitment to social justice, which is also at the heart of the Jesuit philosophy – the liberation theology.

To quote the US Catholic magazine: “… [it] is a social and political movement within the church that attempts to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ through the lived experiences of oppressed people.”

And this has stayed consistent in his tenure as the current head of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis receives participants in the 69th General Chapter of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God on the theme "Building the future of Hospitality " in The Sala Clementina at The Vatican on February 1, 2019, which is underway in Rome from January 14 - February 6, 2019. Image Credit: AFP/VATICAN MEDIA

“Remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face.”

He has often spoken during his papacy about economic injustice, acceptance, inter-faith dialogue and the need for a “poor church for the poor”.

In October, 2013, merely six months into his reign, the pontiff held a landmark meeting with cardinals and was quoted by the AP news service as stating that he wants a missionary church like the one sought by St Francis: “We need to give hope to young people, help the aged and open ourselves toward the future and spread love.”

In an interfaith visit to Azerbaijan in October 2016, the Catholic News Agency reported that he said the world seems to be in a “night of conflict”, and hoped that religions would prepare the way for “a dawn of peace, seeds of rebirth amid the devastation of death, echoes of dialogue resounding unceasingly, paths to encounter and reconciliation reaching even those places where official mediation efforts seem not to have borne fruit.”

Pope Francis leads a Holy? Mass during the 23rd World Day For Consecrated Life in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli Image Credit: REUTERS

“Everyone needs peaceful co-existence”

This sense of building a global future together, has become the main thrust of his work these days.

While speaking in Baku’s main mosque he said: “The fraternity and sharing that we seek to increase will not be appreciated by those who want to highlight divisions, reignite tensions and profit from opposition and differences …fraternity and sharing are invoked and longed for by those who desire the common good, and are above all pleasing to God, the compassionate and all merciful, who wishes his sons and daughters in the one human family to be ever more united among themselves and always in dialogue with one another.”

Then, in a December 2017 meeting with inter-religious leaders in Bangladesh, he added that the spirit of openness, acceptance and cooperation doesn’t just contribute to a culture of harmony and peace, but is “its beating heart”.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Santa Maria La Antigua cathedral on the occasion of his visit for World Youth Day, in Panama City, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Francis turns his attention to the country's priests and religious sisters as he reaches the midway point in his five-day Central American visit. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) Image Credit: AP

And the world, especially the young, are in need of it “to counter the virus of political corruption, destructive religious ideologies, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities, and those who are most vulnerable.”

On Tuesday, at 10:30am Pope Francis will hold mass at Zayed Sports City and then deliver his homily – a message, yet again, that would focus on tolerance, compassion and understanding. The very essence of Christianity, as seen in his tweet before he set out for the UAE.

@Pontifex: “I am about to leave for the United Arab Emirates. I am visiting that country as a brother, in order to write a page of dialogue together, and to travel paths of peace together. Pray for me!”

Pope Francis on board
Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane before departure for his visit to United Arabs Emirates, at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, February 3, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS/Remo Casilli