View From Rome
It had been a long, emotionally draining visit taking in three countries in Africa, one of them a war zone. On the plane back from Bangui in the Central African Republic, Pope Francis had just finished his customary in-flight press conference and pulled his then press aide Fr Federico Lombardi to one side.
The millions of people who flock every year to Lourdes, Fátima, Knock, Medjugorje and Walsingham might be described as the real miracle of these famous shrines, each of them built in the midst of considerable scepticism following alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
For decades one of the major stumbling blocks to church unity has been the five words uttered in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII, when in the papal bull Apostolicae Curae he concluded that Anglican ordinations were “absolutely null and utterly void”. This phrase is an open wound for those seeking to heal the divisions between Catholics and Anglicans, a theological ravine so far impossible to bridge.
As the plane taxied down the runway preparing for take off, I looked towards the front of the plane from my seat at the back. In the distance, I spotted a fleck of white peeking out into the aisle. Pope Francis was sitting in seat 1C of the Alitalia Airbus A321, and hanging in front of him was an icon of the Virgin Mary and child Jesus on a gold background.
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