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Pope Francis calls, and people listen

By Elisabetta Povoledo and Dan Bilefsky | The New York Times | Updated: 2013-09-22 07:56

 Pope Francis calls, and people listen

Already known for reaching out to people, Pope Francis has surprised some of those who have written to him with personal telephone calls. Angelo Carnoni / European Pressphoto Agency

ROME - Pope Francis already has distinguished himself from his predecessor with a more down-to-earth style. Now he is both unnerving the Vatican and delighting the faithful by picking up the telephone and spontaneously calling people, earning the sales-inspired nickname "the Cold Call Pope."

In September, he called to comfort a pregnant Italian woman whose married boyfriend had unsuccessfully pressured her to have an abortion. The woman, who is divorced, wrote to the pope, fearing she had fallen afoul of the church. Not knowing the correct address, she marked the envelope "Holy Father Pope Francis, Vatican City, Rome." The pope offered to baptize the baby when it is born next year, according to an account in La Stampa, a newspaper in Turin.

In August, Francis phoned a woman in Argentina who had been raped by a police officer. The pope told her that she was not alone and that she should have faith in the justice system, according to an Argentine television news report rebroadcast in Italy.

On August 7, Michele Ferri of Pesaro, Italy, answered his phone and was startled to hear, "Hello, Michele, it's Pope Francis." Mr. Ferri said in a telephone interview he had thought it was a joke. "But then he spoke about the letter that I'd written, a letter I hadn't told anyone about, not even my mother or my wife, and I knew that it was him," he said.

Mr. Ferri had written the pope, he said, after a "series of tragedies in the family," most recently the killing of his brother in a robbery in early June. "The pope said that the letter had made him cry," he said. The 10-minute phone call "offered comfort and hope, to better face life without my brother," he said. "Of course the pain remains, but it was a great emotion to hear his voice."

While the papal phoning has been widely greeted with delight, it is also proving somewhat perilous, with unsubstantiated news reports of calls supposedly made by Francis - including one recently to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and another to a young distraught French gay man. The Vatican denied that the pope had made those calls.

Some Vatican officials are expressing concern that individuals are impersonating Francis to advance political or ideological agendas.

Other Vatican analysts fear that the papal phone calls could spawn disillusion among those not receiving a call.

The Vatican's spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said that it was the pope's prerogative to phone whomever he chose and that the Vatican would not comment on every reported call. But he said he would intervene when rumors or hoax calls dealt with issues of international relevance like Syria or could have important doctrinal implications.

Mr. Lombardi denied newspaper reports in France that the pope had called a young Catholic gay man in Toulouse.

Christopher Trutino, a 25-year-old salesclerk, had told a local paper, La Depeche du Midi, that after he wrote to the pope explaining his struggles to reconcile his sexuality and faith, Francis phoned him to counsel him. "Your homosexuality, it doesn't matter," he recalled the pope saying. "One way or another, we are all children of God."

Cyril Doumergue, the journalist from La Depeche du Midi who interviewed Mr. Trutino, said he believed Mr. Trutino may have been deceived. He added, "Christopher did not record the conversation, so it is impossible to know."

The New York Times

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