"Now times are very difficult for the church," said Massimo Coppo, who for more than 30 years has devoted his life to prayer and penitence for the church, following the example, he said, of St. Francis of Assisi.
Coppo arrived in Rome early Tuesday on the train from Assisi, where he is part of a community dedicated to St. Francis – and reforming the church. He's become something of a fixture at St. Peter's, but usually takes the train back to Assisi at night, where he sleeps under the porticos of the basilica.
"Tonight, I think I will stay," Coppo said, thanking a young priest who pressed a bag of grapes and crackers into his gnarled hands. "Here it is a mission of praying." He'd chosen his spot, kneeling atop the sewer drain, because, he explained, "When Francis came here to meet the pope, the story says that he also stayed in a stable with animals. So I want to stay here, as a sign of penance and also in prayer, so that our church may be clean and restored."
When I asked the question that is nearly ubiquitous in Rome at the moment – who would he like to see elected pope – Coppo skipped names and went straight to description.
"To me, I hope it will be a pope who is poor or who understands the poor. Many people are poor and becoming poor," he said. "A pope that speaks of eternity – of paradise – and even of hell in a world that doesn't like it.
"The revolutionary approach of Francis to poverty and suffering is the approach of the apostles, of the Bible," the soft-spoken pilgrim continued. "Sometimes, part of the church wants to please the world. It's not possible.”