Papal switcheroo as Francis changes plans at last minute to visit different Rome community

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis slipped out of the Vatican on Thursday to meet with members of a local Roman parish as part of his new initiative of surprise papal prayer sessions ahead of next year’s Jubilee.

The 30 or so families who met with Francis in a building courtyard in the far west neighborhood of Palmarola were certainly surprised — especially since Francis had been expected across town at another parish community at the same time.

Francis apparently pulled the last-minute switcheroo after word had spread too much that he was planning to visit an apartment complex in Casal Bertone, a middle-class neighborhood in far-east Rome. Indeed, the city of Rome had set up police barricades to contain well-wishers, potted plants decorated the site and media crews were on hand — only to have the pope end up a no-show.

The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, didn’t address the change in plans in a statement issued late Thursday alongside a photo of the pope with the parish families he actually did meet. He said only that Francis had gone to the Palmarola neighborhood to meet with 30 families who belong to the parish of Santa Brigida di Svezia for the third round of his “school of prayer” encounters.

Unlike typical parish visits that involve church communities preparing for months to receive a pope, or highly orchestrated foreign trips that require bilateral diplomatic protocols, these prayer meetings are designed to be informal and spontaneous.

After battling poor health for much of the winter, the 87-year-old Francis has resumed a fairly robust schedule of encounters outside the Vatican. Recently he has met with groups of priests and laity in various parts of Rome and made recent day trips to Venice and Verona, with plans for upcoming visits to Trieste and the Group of Seven meeting near Bari.