Like millions of others, I have always been fond of Saint Francis of Assisi. Imagine my delight when Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope and announced, "My name is Francis."
Many of us are familiar with Saint Francis' life. After his dream to renew the Church, Francis mistakenly renewed the tiny church of Porziuncola, only to realise God was asking him to challenge the entire Catholic Church. He became the famous"Poor man of Assisi".
The equally famous words of Francis are at the entrance to Saint Francis’ chapel at Glendale Parish Church: “Always preach the Gospel, sometimes use words." Pope Francis has captivated the world because he obviously lives those words. When named by Time magazine "Person of the Year", editor Nancy Gibbs described the Pope as, "A new voice of conscience for our world".
For the past sixteen years Sugarloaf Parish, under my leadership, has supported many social justice projects in poor countries like Vietnam, New Guinea, Kiribati and East Timor, including the education of 160 children in Vietnam every year, the building of a road and many wells, and assisting the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who have a school for Down Syndrome children.
I celebrated fifty years of priesthood last year, and so the parishioners wanted to thank me.
On 7 November 2013, I concelebrated Mass with Pope Francis in his chapel, Domus Sanctae Marthae, in Rome. This was the special "thank you" from the parish. There were only seven other priests who concelebrated with the Pope, and each of us was privileged to meet the Pope afterwards.
Just twenty years ago, I had helped prepare St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney for the visit of Nelson Mandela, soon after his release from prison. He came to Australia to thank the Churches for supporting him during his 27 years of unjust imprisonment. After meeting Mandela, I have always said he is the most peaceful man I have ever met. Amazing, since Mandela, more than anyone, had every right to be bitter, angry and cynical.
Mandela's personal journey from meeting violence with violence to peace through reconciliation has captured the minds and hearts of all. Most expected his presidency to end in a bloodbath after centuries of unjust oppression. With the support of his friend Archbishop Tutu, peace and reconciliation triumphed. It’s no wonder that after Mandela's death late last year, the whole world expressed that same sense of wonder at his incredible sense of peace and reconciliation. A challenge to all nations!
Meeting Pope Francis has had the same impact on me. Like Saint Francis, the Pope lives the message of peace and personifies peace – a peace that flows from justice as expressed in his New Year message.
On behalf of the parish, I presented the Pope with an Aboriginal bark painting from Yirrkala, Northern Territory to say thank you for his "Oneness with the poor". With the same warm, unassuming gentleness of Saint Francis, the Pope simply asked, "Pray for me."
Next month, to mark the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, Aurora begins “Frankly speaking”, a monthly spotlight on the words and actions of the 266th pope. To read Pope Francis’ New Year message, please visit www.vatican.va.