ROME — Although Pope Francis marked his 78th birthday Wednesday, most of the celebrations of the day were staged by others, including an online global prayer initiative, a massive tango dance in Rome, and Filipino street children singing “Happy Birthday” in a special video.
During his weekly Pope-mobile swing through St. Peter’s Square before his regular Wednesday General Audience, Francis blew out the candles of a cake presented to him by a group of seminarians from the Legion of Christ living in Rome.
The aspiring priests also sang a classic Mexican birthday song for the pontiff, “Las Mañananitas” (“The Little Mornings”).
During the open-air ride, the Argentinian pope also received numerous birthday cards from children, taking special care to praise those that were handmade.
At the end of his address, which was centered on the family “that imitates the family of Nazareth,” Francis was greeted by eight poor people who each handed him a sunflower as a birthday gift.
(In Catholic spirituality, the movement of a sunflower seeking the sun is a symbol of faith.)
Just yards away from St. Peter’s Square, more than 1,000 couples gathered to dance the tango for the pope’s birthday, in a tribute to the first pontiff from Argentina.
The encounter was organized by Roman dance teacher Cristina Camorani, and, although it had no official support from the Vatican, the pontiff greeted the dancers during his audience and wished them “a good spectacle.”
Tango originated in Argentina and Uruguay in the early 1900s. It was initially criticized by some Catholic prelates, such as French bishops who condemned it fiercely in 1913 when the Latin rhythm infiltrated the dance floors of Paris.
The French bishops asked the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to consider banning it, but the edict never came. Pope Pius XI’s silence over it, after seeing a performance in 1924 by the dancer Casimiro Aín to the sound of “Ave-Maria”, was interpreted as a sign of approval.
Today, the tango is considered as an artistic expression of Argentina, and in 2009, UNESCO recognized it as “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Other initiatives for the pope’s birthday included the donation of almost 2,000 pounds of chicken from the Spanish cooperative Coren for the second consecutive year. The meat will be distributed to Rome’s soup kitchens.
Filipino street children, under the care of the Verlanie Foundation, sent the pope a video message in which they sang the “Happy Birthday” and greeted him for the occasion. As it happens, Francis is scheduled to visit the Philippines in January 2015.
Various groups of students from different countries had a similar initiatives.
In the digital realm, website CatholicLink invited its followers to tweet a photo of themselves holding a Happy Birthday sign using the hashtag #Happy78PopeFrancis, while the Italian lay youth movement “Papa-boys” organized a 24-hour prayer campaign via Twitter with #AuguriFrancesco, meaning “Congratulations Francis.”
Last year, an aide responsible for papal charities, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, invited a group of Roman homeless (and their dog named Marley, in honor of reggae legend Bob Marley), to join the pontiff for a birthday meal.
A Vatican spokesman dismissed the possibility of something similar this year, although he said “the pope has requested a small surprise for the poor” without clarifying what it might be.