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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pope Francis's Unexpected Encounter with an Ulsterman

The Telegraph's John Bingham, an Ulster protestant, was in the Vatican City on Sunday when, suddenly, he found himself face to face with the new Pope. He describes what happened next.

By John Bingham, Vatican City

Mr Paisley, I hope you are sitting down if you read this. 

In an unwitting ecumenical gesture, Pope Francis shook hands with the first Ulster protestant of his reign today: me.

I had turned up outside the small parish church of Saint Anna in the Vatican to cover the scene as he attended mass before his first Angelus address in St Peter's square. 

Leaning against a hastily erected barrier at the far end of the line, I had not expected him to come up as far as I was - content to look on as he was virtually mobbed by the people of Rome who had turned out for their first up-close glimpse of the new Pope, their bishop.

But, to the obvious concern of his anxious security detail, he darted first one way, then the other, reaching into the crowd, chatting and laughing.

Then there he was, standing right in front of me reaching out his hand and smiling.

Like a good journalist I tried to ask him a question but was drowned out by the shrieks of the over-excited crowds around me and a small nun behind him. I wanted to know whether he found it strange to have been suddenly elevated to his new status. I should really have wished him a happy St Patrick's Day.

A few hundred were squeezed into the narrow alley itself where St Anna's stands, shrouded in scaffolding.

Two clerics were allowed through to greet him, one of them attempting to drop to his knees but was quickly ushered back onto his feet by the Pope.

"He touched me, he touched me!" said one French woman holding her hand aloft, having just had it shaken by the Pope.

One young woman walked away in tears, holdng the hands of her two tiny children, stunned that the Pope had knelt down to kiss their heads.

Maria Hakolinen, who prays at the church every morning at 7am, said she had never seen a previous Pope there on a Sunday morning.

"I see that he is a very natural, very sensitive. We have really taken him to our hearts." 

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