There is one phrase in the CAN/EWTN news story below about Bolivian President Morales’ gift to the Holy Father that struck a chord with me: “While the audio is a bit marred by the clicking of journalists’ cameras, the embarrassment of the Pope seems clear.”

When visiting heads of State or Government are received in the Apostolic Palace by Popes, a Swiss Guard honor guard accompanies them from the San Damaso courtyard where their car arrives, to an elevator that brings the guest of honor and his/her entourage to the upper floors of the papal palace. There is also an official, usually Abp. Georg Gaenswein, of the Prefecture of the Papal Household by the side of the visitor.

The guest is ushered into the papal library where the Pope is usually waiting behind his desk. For just a matter of seconds, perhaps even a minute or two, the two heads of State greet each other.

Recording such public moments are members of the media, including a small delegation of television people and photographers from the visitor’s country, CTV (Vatican television), the official Vatican photographer and a pool of journalists – traditionally two – from the press office, generally chosen by language, especially that of the visitor. Photographers and TV cameramen vie with each other for the small space accorded them on one side of the papal desk as they seek to capture an important moment.

The print media almost always end up (and I’ve been in this spot a number of times) behind the photogs and TV people, and the clicks of the cameras always drive us crazy as it makes it close to impossible – sometimes actually impossible – to catch the words of the Pope and his guest.  The pool journalists are responsible for returning to the press office to share what they saw and heard with their colleagues.

What a guest –wherever they are from – says to a Pope and what the papal response is, is always news, even if it is just the formality of greeting one another. Sometimes there can be huge political overtones in these remarks and they must be captured exactly.

I mention this so you can understand the problem the media seems to have faced in Bolivia when the president gave his unusual gifts to Pope Francis.

Try to listen to the camera clicks the next time you see two heads of State meet and you’ll understand the dilemma of the print media!

By the way, another, little mentioned but very important aspect of such visits is the protocol –protocol involving the order in which people are received, who speaks to whom, how gifts will be exchanged, etc.  I am guessing that publicly refusing a gift might be frowned on in protocol handbooks! What one says in private is another matter.

A HEADS UP on Vatican Insider: I offer a Special this week on must-see churches in Rome  – after you have visited the papal basilicas!


Last Sunday, Bishop Robert Baker presided at a concelebrated Mass at the main altar of the lower basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Celebrating with him was a priest accompanying a group of Canadian pilgrims from Calgary and several Franciscans, including Fr. Justin, who had helped our small group two years earlier when the bishop said the Sunday English Mass in the upper basilica.


Following are some photos I took in the lower basilica last Sunday as we waited for Mass to start. After Mass, as Canadian pilgrims departed and others arrived, Fr. Justin told pilgrims not to take photos!  I already had taken mine and did feel somewhat guilty, for if there were “no photo” signs, I truly did not see them. In any case, when Julie and Joe Helow and I went into the sacristy with Bishop Baker and saw the beauty of the frescoes there, I did specifically ask Fr. Justin’s permission.

The sacristy wall:


And now some history:

Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone of the Lower Basilica the day after the canonization of St. Francis, on July 17, 1228. Two years later the saint’s body, that had been resting in the church of San Giorgio (the future St. Clare basilica) was brought here in secret for fear of looting by tomb raiders and buried in the unfinished church. No date has been recorded concerning the start of works on the Upper Basilica, but it must have been after the abdication from the order of Brother Elia in 1239, who had hitherto directed the works on the Romanesque Lower Basilica.

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Both churches were consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1253, before work was started on the large cycle of fresco decorations. The square outside the main facade did not exist at the time. A large flight of steps led upwards to the gothic entrance, pierced by a large rose window surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. This in turn was sealed off by a central drum. The lateral towers served as supports for the structure, while those near the choir contained stairs.


In the Lower Basilica the visitor arrives first at a transept that was built after the building of the church between 1280 and 1300. The lateral chapels opposite the entrance were added between 1350 and 1400. The ceiling of the single nave that runs the entire length of the Lower Basilica is supported by cross vaulting all the way to a semicircular apse at its farthest extremity, which is preceded by a transept with barrel vaulting in its lateral arms. Between 1300 and 1350 a series of chapels were opened up in the lateral wall of the transept and nave, wrecking the frescoes that once decorated the side wall.

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Mostly painted in tempera, the cycle of paintings that decorate the nave was completed around 1260 by an unknown artist, later known as the Maestro di San Francesco. It features episodes from the life of St Francis on the left side opposite episodes from the life of Christ on the right. When the lateral chapels were opened, several of these paintings were cut in half. Although the paintings are deteriorated, they are the most important examples of Tuscan wall paintings prior to Cimabue. The high altar is from 1230, while the canopy above dates from the 14th century. Originally, it was surrounded by twelve columns, as a direct analogy with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but these were removed in1870.



The paintings in the vaults (1315-20) depict the “Apotheosis of St Francis“ and allegories of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity by the so-called Maestro delle Vele. The cycle of paintings on the right hand side of the transept (The Childhood of Christ, Posthumous Miracles of St Francis) is less unitary and is partly ascribable to the workshop of Giotto (1315-20). It also contains work by Cimabue (“Enthroned Madonna with Angels and St Francis“, 1280), and Simone Martini (1321-26 “Madonna with Child and Two Wise men“ and “St Francis, St Ludwig of Toulouse, St Elisabeth of Thuringia, St Claire and an Unknown Saint“).

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The left side of the transept was on the other hand completely decorated by Lorenzo Lorenzetti and his workshop between 1315 and 1330. The cycle represents the “Passion of Christ“. (Photos by JFL: Text selections from


La Paz, Bolivia, Jul 9, 2015 / 10:45 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales on Thursday presented Pope Francis with a “communist crucifix” – a carving of Christ crucified on the hammer of a hammer and sickle – the Pope appeared to say, “This is not ok,” while shaking his head. Shortly after his July 8 arrival at the Bolivian administrative capital of La Paz, Pope Francis made a courtesy visit to Morales at the Palace of Government. At such meetings, the leaders customarily exchange gifts; Pope Francis gave the Bolivian president a mosaic of the Marian icon of the “Salus Populus Romani,” her role as patroness of Rome. Morales explained what his gift to the Pope was as he gave it to him. In the video, filmed by the Vatican Television Center and transmitted throughout the world, the Pope appears to be saying “No está bien eso” – “This is not ok” – while shaking his head. While the audio is a bit marred by the clicking of journalists’ cameras, the embarrassment of the Pope seems clear.

The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Fr. Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit who was a missionary in Bolivia who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship. At a July 9 press briefing the Holy See Press Office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi, noted the lack of clarity in the audio of the exchange, and remarked that Pope Francis had been unaware the crucifix was a replica of Fr. Espinal’s. He also claimed that Fr. Espinal’s use of it was not ideological but expressed a hope for dialogue between communism and the Church, adding that Pope Francis’ remark likely expresed a sentiment of “I didn’t know,” rather than “This is not right.”

Morales’ gift has sparked a worldwide controversy, and reactions were not long in coming. The majority of them accuse Morales of trying to politicize the Pope’s visit. Morales is head of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism party, and his adminstration has focused on implementing leftist policies in the nation. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales has frequently sparred with the Bolivian bishops. Catholics from various Hispanophone countries rejected Morales’ gesture, considering it offensive to the numerous victims of terrorist groups in Latin America and of the historical totalitarian communist regimes.

Bishop Jose Munilla Aguirre of San Sebastián, a Spaniard, tweeted: “The height of arrogance is to manipulate God in the service of atheistic ideologies … Today, once again: #ChristCrucified”.

Fr. Espinal – whose “communist crucifix” was the model for Morales’ gift to the Pope – was a journalist who advocated for human rights and democracy, continues to be a source of controversy in Bolivia. While en route from the La Paz airport to the presidential palace,

Pope Francis stopped to pray at the location where Fr. Espinal’s corpse was found after his March 21, 1980 kidnapping and murder. “Dear sisters and brothers. I stopped here to greet you and above all to remember. To remember a brother, our brother, a victim of interests who did not want him to fight for the freedom of Bolivia,” the Pope said to those gathered at the site, after arriving by way of an open popemobile. “May Christ draw this man into himself. Lord give him eternal rest and may light shine for him that has no end.”

Some regard Fr. Espinal as a martyr who lived the Gospel with the same spirit as Blessed Oscar Romero – who was martyred by right wing Salvadorans two days after Fr. Espinal’s death – while others claim the priest was a communist and became too involved in politics.

Born in 1932 in Barcelona, Fr. Espinal studied both philosophy and theology before entering the Jesuit novitiate in Veruela in Zaragoza at the age of 17. The same year he traveled to Bergamo, Italy to study audiovisual journalism. After two years he returned to Spain and began to work for Spanish radio and television corporation TVE at the height of  Francisco Franco’s rule. Fr. Espinola denounced the censorships placed on TVE under Franco and left Spain. He moved to Bolivia in August 1968, where he took over as chair in the journalism department of the Bolivian Catholic University, and later become sub-director. He was granted Bolivian citizenship in 1970, and over the course of the next 10 years worked in both the written and radio press, produced documentaries on social themes and got into screenwriting.

As an avid defender of human rights, the priest cofounded the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia in 1976. During the 1971 military coup led by Hugo Banzer Suarez, Fr. Espinola intervened on behalf of persecuted and detained politicians and trade unions. In 1977 he participated in a three-week-long hunger strike to gain general amnesty for political exiles, validity of trade unions and the withdrawal of the army from mining centers.

In 1979 Fr. Espinola founded the weekly newspaper “Aqui,” which was quickly dubbed “leftist” due to its anti-establishment views and vocal criticism of government corruption. As a result of his work, the priest was kidnapped by a group of paramilitaries March 21, 1980, while on his way home. According to police and militants at the time, the militants took Fr. Espinola to La Paz’ Achachicala slaughterhouse, where he was tortured for five hours before being shot 17 times. His body was found handcuffed and gagged the next morning.

In 2007, Morales officially declared March 21 as the “Day of Bolivian Cinema” due to the priest’s contributions in the area. On that day, cinemas and television channels are obliged to show national films, particularly relating to the themes of human rights and indigenous peoples.

Fr. Lombardi noted during a July 6 press briefing that no cause has been opened for Fr. Espinal’s beatification.