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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Habemus Papam - A Photographer's Moment When the Pope Pays A Hotel Bill

Among history's rare moments, there are opportunities where a photographer or artist picks up a cultural change in a surreptitious image.  A photograph of Pope Francis I paying his hotel bill in Rome on March 13-14th, 2013, is that kind of completely candid moment. It's just one picture, but it conveys a cultural shift, symbolically signifying a turning of the page on hundreds of years of Vatican tradition and history.  Of course, hundreds of Cardinals of the church pay their own hotel bill, but when the few who are elected Pope are elevated to this esteemed and holy level, they usually delegate these often routine and administrative responsibilities to others.

Jorge Cardinal Mario Bergoglio of Argentina checked into his Rome hotel to attend the religious conclave to elect a new Pope to replace the resigned Pope Benedict XVI, but he checked out as Pope Francis I. He chose this particular name to draw attention to the image and messaging of St. Francis of Assisi, who rejected his family's upper middle class wealth to draw attention to service to the poor.

Argentinians appear to be in a state of near disbelief about their Cardinal's selection, by his peers, to become Pope Francis I.  Comeraderie with the poor is a noteworthy hallmark of the Pope's biography.

For more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide, he's Pope Francis. For Argentina's poorest citizens, crowded in "misery villages" throughout the capital, he's proudly known as one of their own, a true "slum pope."

Villa 21-24 is a slum so dangerous that most outsiders don't dare enter, but residents say Jorge Mario Bergoglio often showed up unannounced to share laughs and sips of mate, the traditional Argentine herbal tea shared by groups using a common straw.

People here recall how the Buenos Aires archbishop ditched a limousine and would arrive on a bus to their little chapel; how he sponsored marathons and carpentry classes, consoled single mothers and washed the feet of recovering drug addicts; how he became one of them.

"Four years ago, I was at my worst and I needed help. When the Mass started he knelt down and washed my feet. It hit me hard. It was such a beautiful experience," said Cristian Marcelo Reynoso, 27, a garbage collector trying to kick a cocaine addiction through the church's rehab program.

"When I saw the news on the TV, I began screaming with joy, and look, I'm still trembling," Reynoso said. "El Chabon (The Dude) is so humble. He's a fan of San Lorenzo (the soccer club), like me. You talk to him like a friend."

Long after he became a cardinal in 2001, this "prince of the church" wore a simple black T-shirt with a white collar. For many at the slum's Caacupe Virgin of the Miracles Church, it's nothing short of a miracle that their friend is the pope.

"He was always part of our slum," housewife Lidia Valdivieso, 41, said after praying while resting her palm on a statue of St. Expeditus, patron saint of urgent and impossible causes. Her 23-year-old son has cerebral palsy and is learning carpentry at the church's technical school.

"When I heard the news I couldn't believe it. Having a 'papa villero' (slum pope) is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us. I still remember him going on long walks through our muddy streets or talking to our children," Valdivieso said. 

......and, of course, by paying of his own hotel bill, Pope Francis I has set a new expectation for the Papacy. It's hard to imagine any future Pope going back to a tradition of expecting privilege. 

For now and the foreseeable future, Vatican officials will have a fundamentally different leader, a man who walks the walk of the people he leads.  His photograph, taken while paying his hotel bill, is as iconic as any religious image and marks the advent of a new, but not so new, era.  Pope Francis is leading us back to the humility and the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. 

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