It was just short of 20 minutes into the weekly general audience on August 21 when 10-year-old Clelia Manfellotti of Naples mounted the stairs and began to meander about the stage. Clad in black leggings and a pink T-shirt, with white-strapped sandals on her feet, she made first for the back corner, stage right, where a plain-clothes security officer was stationed.
The plainclothes guard took a step or two towards her, but decided against intervening. When someone from the house – off camera – moved to intercept the child, Pope Francis waved them off and the girl criss-crossed the foreground, upstaging the Roman Pontiff.
“Leave her be,” Pope Francis said. “God speaks through children.
“Leave her be,” he then repeated three times in swift succession, leaving no doubt about his wishes.
The child continued her amble, pausing occasionally to be entertained by the closed-circuit screen stage left, which had captured her image and showed her to herself. Pope Francis continued his catechesis, animated for the final seven minutes or so by the young girl, who apparently suffers from developmental issues – it turns out she is on the autism spectrum – and was evidently enjoying her impromptu star turn.
She left the stage, and Pope Francis concluded his main catechesis, though she reappeared intermittently throughout the summary readings in the various languages. When Pope Francis came to the greetings, Clelia had taken a position directly before his chair, arms akimbo.
“I’d like to begin by offering you a reflection,” Pope Francis said, putting aside his prepared remarks. “We’ve all seen this very lovely girl. She’s beautiful – she just really is [“è bella, perché è bella” – literally “she’s beautiful, because she’s beautiful”] – and, poor girl, poor girl, she is victim of a disease, and knows not what she does.”
Pope Francis went on to say: “I ask you all one question, [and] let everyone answer in his heart: ‘Did I pray for her? Seeing her, did I pray for her, that the Lord might heal her, might watch over her? Did I pray for her parents, for her family?’ Because, whenever we see someone who is suffering, we must pray. May this situation help us to put this question to ourselves, always: did I pray for this person I saw, who is clearly suffering?”
It was classic Francis, and reminiscent of a similar episode in November of last year, when a speech-impaired Argentine boy in blue jeans and a light blue sweatshirt reached the stage and ran around, with Pope Francis’s permission. “The boy is Argentine,” Pope Francis stage-whispered, “undisciplined.” There was good-natured laughter. “This boy is mute,” Pope Francis told the audience, “but he knows how to communicate, how to express himself.
“This makes me think,” the Pope continued, tongue firmly ensconced in cheek, “he is free – undisciplined in his liberty – but he is free.”
After the few seconds’ comfortable laughter in the hall subsided, Pope Francis said: “This makes me think: Am I so free before God?” Enlarging upon the brief meditation, he said: “He is telling us we must have the freedom children have with their father.
“This child has taught us all,” Pope Francis concluded. “Let us [now] ask for grace, that he might speak” – thus turning what might have been an annoying distraction and an embarrassment to a struggling parent into an interlude of delightful levity that was at the same time an opportunity for instruction and enlightenment.
In spring 2018, Pope Francis had a challenging exchange with another young boy, Emanuele, who was among the children of St John of the Cross parish in one of Rome’s dilapidated public housing projects scheduled to ask him questions during his visit to the parish.
Emanuele’s father had died, leaving him and his three siblings orphaned of their dear papà, who had been an unbeliever in life, but saw his children baptised all the same. Young Emanuele’s voice caught in his throat when he approached the microphone, but Francis called the boy to him and had him whisper the question in his ear.
Emanuele wanted to know if his beloved father was with God in heaven.
“How beautiful to hear a son say of his father, ‘He was good’,” Francis said. “What a beautiful witness of a son, who inherited his father’s strength – who had the courage to weep before us all. If that man was able to make his children like that, then it’s true, he was a good man. He was a good man.” Francis went on to say that God decides who goes to heaven.
Emanuele’s was not the first difficult query that day at St John of the Cross, but it was by far the most urgent. Armchair theologians will quibble with the Pope’s presentation. Let them quibble. Here were suffering children, some struggling with a condition, others with existential questions far beyond their ability to address. In Francis, they met a pastor.