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With the use of one word, Pope Francis is signalling to the Vatican insiders that their day is over

The Pope’s famous phone call to an Italian teenager is more significant than we first thought

By on Friday, 23 August 2013

'When we use our tongue to speak badly of our brother or sister, we use it to kill God' (Photo: CNS)

'When we use our tongue to speak badly of our brother or sister, we use it to kill God' (Photo: CNS)

It seems that Pope Francis has been on the phone again, as this heart-warming story that appears in both the Telegraph and the Guardian tells us. The latter’s headline even goes so far as to describe the Holy Father as “unstuffy”, which is praise indeed.

Italians are addicted to what they call dietrologia, or ‘the facts behind the facts’, and there is more to this story than immediately meets the eye.

First of all, the Pope had a conversation for eight minutes with Stefano Cabizza; after that someone decided that this story was newsworthy. Was it Stefano, or was it the Vatican who called in the press? The story is more or less identical in both papers, so the original, one assumes, came from an agency, which was (I am guessing here) given the story by the Vatican press office. I do not want to be cynical, but this story has all the hallmarks of a plant or publicity coup. I am not saying that the Holy Father had this in mind when he picked up the phone, God forbid; what I mean is that someone in the Vatican saw the opportunity for good publicity and took it. Whoever that someone is, they deserve a pat on the back: for far too long the Vatican has been on the back foot in the news game, been dealing with bad headlines, rather than creating good ones. This story shows that someone at least has some idea of news management. That should come as a relief to all of us who remember the dark days of a few years ago when it seemed that everything the Vatican did was completely out of kilter with the public mood.

The second thing to note here is that the Pope invited Stefano to call him ‘tu’. This will raise eyebrows in Italy and perhaps beyond. In Italy, a younger person always has to call an older person ‘Lei’ which is the formal and respectful mode of address; older people will call younger people ‘tu’, which is affectionate. Most Italians nowadays call their grandparents ‘tu’, but in days gone by would have called them ‘Lei’. I call my Italian sister-in-law’s parents ‘Lei’, but their son ‘tu’, and so it goes on. I once said ‘Ciao’ to a relation of a relation of mine, and goodness, all hell broke loose: that word is informal, and I should have said ‘buona sera’ or something like that. So, it is a minefield for us poor foreigners. These rules are particularly adhered to in the Church: one has to call ecclesiastical bigwigs ‘Lei’, and if they call you ‘tu’ back that is most certainly not an invitation to reciprocate.

So Pope Francis in getting Stefano to call him ‘tu’ is initiating a very familiar sort of relationship. No one on earth would have called Pope Paul VI ‘tu’ for example, after his immediate family had died. Moreover, the Pope is effectively cutting a swathe through centuries of protocol; it is a little bit like the Queen inviting you to call her Lilibet. And it goes further. The Pope provides us with a theological justification for this informality:

“He said to me, do you think the Apostles would have used the polite form with Christ? “Would they have called him your excellency? They were friends, just as you and I are now, and with friends I’m accustomed to using ‘tu’.”

Where to begin to unpack this? What this remark implies is that the way Christians should relate should take as its template the relationship between Christ and his disciples, a relationship of love not power. It implies that much of what goes on in the Vatican (where the polite form is de rigeur) is based on the worldly power template, and needs to change.

People in the Vatican will be horrified by this, for they will see it, quite rightly, as an attack on the entire modus operandi of the Papal court and the Roman Curia, all of which is based on a rigid if unwritten pecking order. With the use of one word, Pope Francis is signalling to the Vatican insiders that their day is over.