As I neared St. Peter’s Square this morning at the start of various appointments in the Vatican, I saw first hand the massive security that was in place for the late morning meeting between Pope Francis and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Adding to the president’s own motorcade of several dozen vehicle and limousines were the dozens of police motorcycles, cars, and vans and several Italian army jeeps with machine-gun toting officers, dressed in camouflage, ringing Vatican City.

Tourists and visitors were kept away from the left hand colonnade, although pilgrims were still allowed to enter the special area of the right hand colonnade to go through security in order to enter St. Peter’s Holy Door.

I well remember the last visit of an Iranian President – 1999 – when Mohammad Khatami came on an official visit to Rome and the Vatican. Traffic problems in the city then, 17 years ago, were massive (and that is an understatement) as many main streets were closed for hours, and some were even closed for the duration of the president’s stay at a Rome hotel. St. Peter’s Square was completely closed to tourists and visitors, and I remember helicopters circling overhead for the duration of the Vatican visit.

For days, news reports have highlighted the importance of Rouhani’s four-day trip to Europe – to Italy, the Vatican and France – especially because Europe was Iran’s largest trading partner before the sanctions, and a range of business and trade deals is expected. On his Italian agenda for his first day, Monday, Rouhani first met with Italian President Sergio Matterella, later meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo. Rouhani will be received in France by President Francois Hollande.

The Vatican released the following communique after the 40-minute private visit (with translators) between the Pope and President Rouhani (photos: news.va):


“Today, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father Francis received in audience His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who subsequently met with His Eminence Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, accompanied by His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial discussions, common spiritual values emerged and reference was made to the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the life of the Church in the country and the action of the Holy See to favour the promotion of the dignity of the human person and religious freedom. Attention then turned to the conclusion and application of the Nuclear Accord and the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfil, along with other countries in the Region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking. In this respect, the Parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace.”

The newsworthy part of that communique undoubtedly concerns “…the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the Region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking. In this respect, the Parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace.”

Iran, in essence, was being asked to take a leadership role in the region in the quest for peace and the fight against terrorism.

One report said that Pope Francis brought up the issue of human rights in Iran. That report noted that Amnesty International lists Iran right after China for abuses.

Ten days ago, January 16, Iran freed four U.S. prisoners as part of a prisoner swap, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. Abedini, in his first media appearance since then, spoke on a FoxNews program last night about his imprisonment in Iran. He was first detained in the summer of 2012. Abedini, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, has dual Iranian-American citizenship.

After their private talk, Pope Francis and President Rouhani exchanged gifts. AP reported that, “The pope’s gift had a spiritual spin. Francis bestowed a medal depicting St. Martin giving his cloak to a shivering man, saying the gesture represents a sign of brotherhood. President Hassan Rouhani brought the pope a red-toned carpet, about 80 cms (32 inches) by 1.2 meters (4 feet) and explained that the rug was hand-made in the Holy City of Qhom. Francis seemed curious as Hassan leafed through a book illustrating Iranian artworks, another gift.”


”I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani is said to have told Francis: Francis thanked Rouhani for the visit and added: “I hope for peace.”




The Vatican today published Pope Francis’ Message for Lent 2016 – “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice (Mt 9:13). The works of mercy on the road of the Jubilee.” It was dated October 4, 2015, Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.

LENT 2016

The heart of the Pope’s Message is in Number 3, The works of mercy, where he quotes Misericordiae vultus, the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee of Mercy:

“God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn. In an ever-new miracle, divine mercy shines forth in our lives, inspiring each of us to love our neighbour and to devote ourselves to what the Church’s tradition calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These works remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbours in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them. On such things will we be judged. For this reason, I expressed my hope that “the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; this will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty, and to enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy” (ibid., 15). For in the poor, the flesh of Christ “becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us” (ibid.). It is the unprecedented and scandalous mystery of the extension in time of the suffering of the Innocent Lamb, the burning bush of gratuitous love. Before this love, we can, like Moses, take off our sandals (cf. Ex 3:5), especially when the poor are our brothers or sisters in Christ who are suffering for their faith.”

And Francis continues, pointing to the need for conversion, another central point of his Lenten Message:

“In the light of this love, which is strong as death (cf. Song 8:6), the real poor are revealed as those who refuse to see themselves as such. They consider themselves rich, but they are actually the poorest of the poor. This is because they are slaves to sin, which leads them to use wealth and power not for the service of God and others, but to stifle within their hearts the profound sense that they too are only poor beggars. The greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow. It can even reach the point of being blind to Lazarus begging at their doorstep (cf. Lk 16:20-21). Lazarus, the poor man, is a figure of Christ, who through the poor pleads for our conversion. As such, he represents the possibility of conversion which God offers us, and which we may well fail to see. Such blindness is often accompanied by the proud illusion of our own omnipotence, which reflects in a sinister way the diabolical “you will be like God” (Gen 3:5), which is the root of all sin. This illusion can likewise take social and political forms, as shown by the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, and, in our own day, by the ideologies of monopolizing thought and techno-science, which would make God irrelevant and reduce man to raw material to be exploited. This illusion can also be seen in the sinful structures linked to a model of false development based on the idolatry of money, which leads to lack of concern for the fate of the poor on the part of wealthier individuals and societies; they close their doors, refusing even to see the poor.

“For all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favourable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practising the works of mercy….”

The full papal Lenten message is here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/events/event.dir.html/content/vaticanevents/en/2016/1/26/messaggioquaresima.html