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Papal Work Ethic: From 4:45 AM Wakeup, Portrait Of A Tireless Pope Francis

An agenda that "would wear out any 40-something" ...
An agenda that "would wear out any 40-something" ...
Andrea Tornielli

VATICAN CITY — To the priests who invited him to take a vacation with them, the late Cardinal Alberto Idelfonso Schuster of Milan replied, smiling, that there would be plenty of time for that in the afterlife.

Pope Francis — the Jesuit whose agenda would wear out any 40-something — seems to be inspired by the same model as Cardinal Schuster, even though his 77 years constrain him sometimes, as happened last Friday when his visit to Rome’s Policlinico Gemelli hospital was cancelled.

"He decides his own agenda," Vatican's spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi told La Stampa, "and has a very intense pace of life because he feels he has been called to serve the Lord with all his might. He never took holidays when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires either."

Even on Tuesdays, the day of the week traditionally free of commitments or private audiences scheduled so the popes could relax a little bit, Francis doesn’t slow down. Instead of using this free morning to rest, he fills it with rescheduled meetings.

"Francis follows the active lifestyle of St. Ignatius of Loyolafounder of the Jesuits which, in its Constitution of Order, defines Jesuits as ‘workers in the vineyard of the Lord,’" observes Lombardi. "He devotes himself completely to his mission — even beyond his own force."

Over the past hundred years, papal agendas have been saturated with countless commitments, public events and speeches. Just one look at the statistics can help you understand. The most significant in the reign of Pope Francis is his daily Mass, celebrated in the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta, where he lives, in the presence of some 60 faithful.

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Pope Francis entering the Casa Santa Marta — Photo: Pufui Pc Pifpef I

By the numbers

His predecessors too said Mass every day in the private chapel of the pontifical apartment — but they did not preach, and they had neither the camera nor microphones of the Vatican Radio watching and listening. If they were unwell or late, nobody would have noticed.

Since March 2013, Francis has celebrated Mass in the Casa Santa Marta 229 times — giving as many homilies — and he personally greets everyone in attendance. Tallying up those numbers, at an estimate, means he has welcomed about 12,000 people in the mornings since he was elected 476 days ago.

Then there’s the 95 great liturgical celebrations, both in Rome and away. Of those, he has given homilies in 73 of them.

In the past 15 months, Francis has written an encyclical (Lumen fidei) and an apostolic exhortation (Evangelii gaudium), three apostolic letters and four "motu proprio" letters, as well as 45 official letters. That’s not including the 55 messages (including several video ones) he also sent out.

He has given 231 speeches, and 73 blessings before the Angelus. And though, of course, the pontiff employs collaborators for these texts, they must follow his directions, thus further engaging his time.

Another of his reforms concerns the Wednesday general audiences. Up until now, Francis has held 54. Estimates from the Prefecture of the Papal Household say that between the Angelus and the General Audiences, six million people have come to see him. He has greatly expanded the time spent meeting with the faithful at St. Peter’s Square. The popemobile covers the whole piazza, and he tries to greet everyone, getting closer to those who are the furthest away.

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Greeting people on St. Peter's Square — Fczarnowski

Even in winter, because of the massive turnouts, these meetings are held outside in the square rather than the often used Paul VI Audience Hall. The pope has spent at the very least 150 hours outdoors on these occasions, no matter the weather. And sometimes, he has taken part despite being unwell. It is impossible to calculate the number of people individually received at these hearings, not to mention the number of ill people the man born Jorge Bergoglio has met.

A "good tired"

The onerous expanse of his personal correspondence has also come to light: Pope Francis personally reads almost 50 letters every day, from the 4,000 that come every week, and he always gives instructions as how to respond to them. Sometimes, he calls people back on the phone too.

Then, there are the trips. He has taken two abroad (to Brazil last summer and, recently, to the Holy Land) and four in Italy. Five visits to Roman parishes — we mustn’t forget that he is, after all, the Bishop of Rome — and he has ushered in a new style, appearing on a Saturday afternoon and staying for several hours, at the disposal of the faithful there.

When he is in the Vatican, the pope wakes up at 4:45 a.m. and gets dressed. The first thing he does is read the "encrypted" nunciatures that come from all over the world, then he prays and meditates for an hour, preparing his homily for Santa Marta. At 7 a.m., alone, he comes down to celebrate the Mass. After greeting everyone, he has breakfast and then begins the morning’s work with his audiences.

At 1 p.m. there’s lunch, followed by a 30-minute nap. In the afternoon, after some time for prayer, he resumes his meetings, then he works on his correspondences and phone calls. At the end of the day, before dinner at 8 p.m., there’s usually an hour of adoration in the chapel.

"Sometimes not everything can be done," Francis confided to a group of seminarians, "because I let myself be led by imprudent exigencies: too much work, or to think that if I don’t do this today, I won’t do it tomorrow … Adoration fails, my siesta fails, this fails …"

"The ideal," he added, "is to finish your day tired. Not so tired that you have to take pills, but a good tired. If it is a reckless tiredness, it is bad for your health and you will end up paying dearly in the long run. This is the idea, but I don’t always manage to do it — even I am a sinner and not always so organized!"

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As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

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When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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