Pope Francis pays surprise visit to Vatican department

VATICAN CITY—After a trip to the dentist Wednesday, Pope Francis made the spontaneous decision to stop by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America — a visit one official says demonstrates his close pastoral concern for those in his care.

“It was a very exciting moment for everyone,” Father Jose Tola, an official of the department, told CNA on July 13 following the pope’s visit.

Father Tola, who was present to welcome the unexpected guest, said it was the first time he’s met the pope in a non-protocol situation.

“He’s a person with a very special charism and has a very sincere way of approaching people,” Father Tola said, explaining that for him the visit was “a very edifying experience” from a personal, human, and spiritual perspective.

While he’s met Pope Francis before in formal situations, what made this visit special was “the spontaneity,” the priest said, because protocol visits such as a plenary meeting or Masses are foreseen, so everything is arranged beforehand.

“Instead, today the pope met us without preparation and I felt like he was not only the Supreme Pontiff, but a pastor who is close the people” Father Tola said.

The visit was “something done for pastoral reasons, for sincere pastoral reasons for his workers, for the people entrusted to his care,” he added.

The commission, headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, is located only 330 yards from the Apostolic Palace. According to an article posted to the commission’s website after the visit, work was going about as usual when Pope Francis unexpectedly showed up at the door at exactly 9:10 a.m.

Officials had been in a meeting planning an upcoming continental celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy in Bogota when the doorbell rang, the article said, noting that the person who went to the door was “stunned” to see the Vicar of Christ standing in front of them.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, was completely natural, telling them, “Good morning! Can I come in?”

After getting a heads-up from a woman who had passed by and happened to see the pope walk in, the other officials in the meeting jumped to their feet as Pope Francis made his way down the hall to the office where the meeting was taking place.

Guzman Carriquiry, the commission’s secretary, quickly made his way to the front of the group just in time to greet the pontiff as he walked up, asking Pope Francis, “Good morning, do you have time to speak a little bit?”

According to the article, the rest of the officials waited “impatiently” outside while the pope and Carriquiry spoke in private, and were “noticeably surprised and excited” for the spontaneous visit.

The security officer who accompanied the pontiff told the officials that as  Pope Francis was leaving the Vatican’s Department for Health and Welfare after a visit to the dentist, he said that he had the idea “to pass by the Commission for Latin America” before returning to Santa Marta.

The security officer recalled how he told the pope that the visit would be “very complicated,” but Pope Francis simply replied by calmly saying, “I am the pope; don’t worry, we are in God’s hands.”

The Swiss Guards standing watch at the Saint Anne’s Gate entrance to the Vatican made “a solemn and half-shocked salute” as they saw the pope drive away, the officer said, jesting with the commission that it was “the first such mischief” Pope Francis had done.

After the private conversation between Pope Francis and Carriquiry ended, the pontiff accepted the commission’s invitation for coffee, greeting each member personally.

The commission’s article recounts how although the conversation was brief, it was “pleasant and enjoyable,” and that in addition to sharing some stories and jokes, Pope Francis demonstrated an “impressive memory” when he met officials whom he had greeted on previous occasions.

After a leisurely visit, the commission members took some photos with Pope Francis before accompanying him to the door.

The commission in their article stressed that the visit was completely casual and spontaneous, and was not part of the pope’s scheduled visits to the different departments and entities of the Roman Curia.

Pope Francis has so far made several rounds in his visits to the curial offices, but has not made his official visit to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

For that, the commission said, “we are still waiting.”

By Elise Harris / Catholic News Agency

CNA photo/ Daniel Ibanez: Pope Francis interacts with the crowd at a General Audience in St. Peter’s Square in May.