The Pope of audience surprises

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Pope Francis at the May 22 general audience. Credit CNA.

*By Stephen Driscoll

During the May 22 general audience, Pope Francis got into a small debate with his security detail that gives a glimpse into his personality.

Standing just a few feet from the Pope, I could hear him and his security team shouting over the roar of the crowd. They were debating whether the popemobile would take him to the stage or if he would walk on his own.

Needless to say, he won the exchange and strode up the stairs.

This is only one example of the changes that the simple but determined Pope from Argentina has brought to the Vatican.

Having regularly attended Wednesday general audiences as a CNA photographer for the past four months, their format has become somewhat of a routine for me.

But when I arrived at the general audience a few weeks ago, the “routine” was suddenly different.

Looking around, I saw that I wasn’t the only photographer caught off guard.

When I looked down at my watch, I realized that the audience had started 30 minutes earlier than the normal 10:30 a.m. start time.

The next week I made my way to St. Peter’s Square, this time at 9:30 a.m., knowing that the start time had been changed. Upon arriving I heard the presenters for the various languages announcing and welcoming the pilgrim groups.

“I’m late,” I thought as a looked down to check the time. I wasn’t late. The organizers had changed the format again.

Rather than waiting until the Pope made his way onto the stage to announce the pilgrim groups, they began the process before the audience officially began.

The combination of the change in start time and pilgrim group announcements cut the overall duration of the audiences from two-plus hours to around 90 minutes.

It’s no secret that the Pope has a bit of a spontaneous side that surprises both the massive crowds and his security team.

And while that means that the audience itself is shorter, Pope Francis then spends upwards of two hours before and after the audience greeting pilgrims.

Over the stretch of these past two months, I have seen him engage in all sorts of off-the-cuff activities.

He has extended the popemobile route down Via della Conciliazione to reach the crowds spilling out of St. Peter’s Square, released two doves brought in a cage by a pilgrim, hung out of the popemobile to touch the hands of the faithful, flashed the thumbs up sign to people, traded papal hats and hugged and kissed people in the crowd.

So, while I sit here thinking of what used to seem like a “routine,” I can only wonder what next week’s general audience will be like. Only time will tell how Pope Francis will surprise us next.

*Stephen Driscoll is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying broadcasting, journalism and global studies. He recently completed a six-month internship with CNA as an assistant producer and photographer.