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Slow changes: A stroll through 4 papacies

By Victor L. Simpson

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for a meeting with the media at the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican Saturday, March 16, 2013. Pope Francis met thousands of journalists and media workers coming from 81 countries at Paolo VI hall on Saturday.

Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — In one of his last major public appearances before his death, Pope Paul VI sat on a throne atop a platform carried on the shoulders of 12 men as he was brought into the funeral of assassinated Italian politician Aldo Moro at St. John Lateran Cathedral in 1978.

The basilica was crammed with Italian dignitaries shaken by the kidnapping and death of Moro at the hands of the Red Brigades terrorist gang, and I thought the frail pope looked uncomfortable as he was held aloft.

It was already an awkward situation for him.

He was under fire from the family who thought he didn't do enough to save Moro despite having made a public plea "on my knees" for Moro's freedom.

The royal trappings earned him no points.

During his 15-year pontificate, Paul had sought to modernize the Vatican, including getting rid of scores of Italian nobles from the papal "court" who had privileges dating back centuries, but he never did away with the portable ceremonial throne that was used by popes for special occasions for at least a millennium.

Change comes slowly, hesitantly and inconsistently at the Vatican.

Upon Paul's death that August, the Venetian cardinal who succeeded him, Pope John Paul I, declined to use the throne at his installation, also eschewing the papal tiara.

But the new pope was later persuaded by advisers that he needed to be seen above the crowds. And in subsequent events he used the "sedia gestatoria," as the throne is called.

It took the athletic 58-year-old Pope John Paul II to definitively get rid of the throne when he took over after John Paul I died after only 33 days as pope.

Watching Pope Francis in his first papal appearances, he, too, doesn't look the type to be carried around on a fancy chair. After all, he used to take the bus to work as a cardinal back in Buenos Aires, and he declined the chauffeur-driven Vatican limousine when he made his first outing, using a simple Vatican car.

Until John Paul II, popes used what is known as the "royal we." They never spoke publicly in the first person, using "Noi" (We) or "the pope" instead.

Initially, Vatican bureaucrats edited published versions of his speeches and spontaneous remarks to eradicate the offending "I."

But eventually they gave in and stopped censoring their boss.

Pope Francis, in the very brief blessing to the world after his election Wednesday, used "Io" ("I'') six times.

Relations with the press have also been a tricky issue with the Vatican.

When I first started covering the Vatican in the 1970s, information was particularly scarce: The official spokesman was an Italian cleric, Monsignor Romeo Panciroli, who was nicknamed "Monsignore non mi risulta" ("Monsignor I have nothing on that.")

Yet a new pope's agenda always includes an audience with the media — and Francis is keeping up with the tradition.

John Paul I's audience took place in one of the frescoed halls in the papal palace. After a brief speech by the pope only a chosen few — mainly Italians — were brought up to the pope for the "bacia mano," the formal greeting during which Catholics kiss the pope's hand.

After the audience was over, as the pope walked down the center aisle, other journalists reached out to shake his hand. Some even hoped to ask him a question. But Vatican aides and security whisked him away, never to officially meet with the press again. (Weeks later he was found dead by a nun in his bedroom.)

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