Rome-based photographer Francesco Zizola was assigned to cover Pope Francis for TIME’s Person of the Year issue. Over the past month, Zizola captured the humble spirit surrounding the Holy Father as he takes a new direction in the Vatican living out the mission of his namesake.
“Obtaining an accreditation to follow the Pope feels like being invited to the Court of the last great Emperor. The rituals and ceremonies that regulate the daily activities of the Holy Father are extremely codified and centuries old. Usually, these formalities create a distance between the observer and the Pontiff, a sort of intimidating, regal detachment that underlines a hierarchical relationship. I was surprised by the manner in which this Pope has humanized the ancient rituals, doing away with the rigid feeling of depersonalization carried on by some of the Pope’s predecessors.
The moment in which this was clearest, and in which I truly felt emotional, was during a meeting between the Pope and the delegates of Unitalsi. Immediately after completing his scheduled program — greeting the attendees, listening to the speech of the delegate and accepting gifts — he rose from his throne and began to greet the handicapped pilgrims lining up in front of him.
I believe I counted four-hundred wheelchairs before it dawned on me that this was not a media opportunity to demonstrate the charitable attitude of the church. I waited (and photographed) as the Pontiff bent over and gently greeted each person lined up before him. It was a long ceremony, and one in which I was able to clearly see why Bergoglio chose the name Francis, after Francesco, the poor man from Assisi.
In this sense, I consider my personal — and completely unexpected — meeting with the Pope a revealing experience. It did not feel like an empty formality; when his hand-shake and his serene gaze crossed mine, it felt like the confirmation of being in the presence of a person able to endow meaning to every single meeting.
When I was born, my father, a Vatican expert, named me Francesco. Even shortly before his death two years ago, he never missed an occasion to remind me how relevant the legacy of Francis of Assisi still remains — a man who pursued communion with all Creation, with nature and every living being, animals included. By choosing to do away with material possessions, living in poverty and promoting and preaching peace, he continues to show us the way. My father only just missed witnessing this passage and renewal within the Church; I carried this thought as I followed the Pontiff on assignment for TIME.”
Francesco Zizola is an award winning photographer based in Rome. He is represented by NOOR Images.