ROME — What do a divorced and civilly remarried woman, a transgender man, a boy concerned over his aunt’s health, a man who served a 22-year sentence for killing his parents, and scores of other seemingly random people around the world have in common?
They’ve all received a phone call from Pope Francis.
He’s been dubbed the “cold-call pope” for his habit of surprising people with unexpected, yet deeply welcome, calls. The latest such outreach to become known to the world involves a convicted Italian murderer named Pietro Maso.
In April 1991, with the aid of two friends, Maso killed his parents by subduing them with a frying pan, and then using a plastic bag and his foot to suffocate them to death. According to his confession, he killed them because he didn’t want to wait to claim his part of the family inheritance.
It became a notorious case in Italy, with Maso emerging as the country’s most infamous family-killer.
Although it’s only being discussed now, the papal call to Maso actually occurred in 2013, so it could have been among the first in a string of almost endless, and generally unpublicized, attempts by Francis to answer those who write to share their pain, to ask for forgiveness, and to express doubts.
On Wednesday, the Italian weekly magazine Chi published a long interview with Maso, who’s now living in Spain, where he hopes to build a community of recovery for “people who have made mistakes in society.”
During the interview, Maso revealed that the pope had called after his spiritual director hand-delivered a letter to the pontiff.
“I’ll turn 45 in July, and I [was] in prison for 22 years for killing my parents,” Maso tells the Italian weekly. “I was evil, yet Pope Francis had compassion for me.”
The former inmate doesn’t give a precise date for the call, beyond saying it happened in the morning sometime in 2013 when he was at home. He had been released from prison in April 2013, a month after the start of Francis’ pontificate.
“It was 10 a.m., and the phone rang,” Maso said. “I was with Stefania, my partner. I answered and heard: ‘I’m Francis, Pope Francis.”
“Taken by emotion, I said aloud: ‘Holiness’.”
“I had written a letter in which I said, ‘I’m sorry for what I did, I ask for prayers for my co-workers who accepted me despite what I’ve done, [I] ask for a prayer for those who work for peace’,” Maso said.
He said that while he was in prison he found God, and that today he’s a different man.
“First I was evil, but now I pray,” he said. “I want to dedicate my life to helping others.”
After losing the job he had in 2013 and parting ways with his wife, he moved to Spain, where he wants to offer a second chance to others who find themselves in situations similar to his.
“I want to welcome those who did wrong and are out in the streets,” Maso told the magazine. “I want to give a different meaning to my life. Only those who are foreigners understand the foreigner. Only one who was in prison understands others who were.”
Papal phone calls have been in something of a lull lately.
During the first months of his pontificate, Francis made constant headlines for reaching out to a handful of the thousands that send him letters every day.
There was a call to an Argentine woman who, after civilly marrying a divorced man, wanted to receive Communion. There was also an Italian single mother who had written to share with the head of the Catholic Church her decision not to have an abortion, after the married man she had an affair with had tried to pressure her into terminating her pregnancy.
Francis also called the Foley family of New Hampshire after the murder of their son, James, at the hands of Islamic terrorist organization ISIS last August, and he left a voicemail message for Spanish nuns on New Year’s Eve in 2014, jokingly chastising them for being out of the nunnery and missing his call.
There are also urban legends around calls that never were, such as a rumored call to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and another to a young distraught French gay man to whom the pope allegedly said “Your homosexuality, it doesn’t matter.”
Although the Vatican’s official line regarding the papal calls has always been “no comment,” a spokesman vehemently denied these two in September, 2013.
The spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said at the time that it’s the pope’s prerogative to make phone calls, and that the Vatican wouldn’t comment on every reported case. However, he added that when rumors or hoax calls touch upon issues of international relevance, such as Syria, or could have doctrinal implications, he would intervene to deny the reports.
Except for a call during the Christmas season to an Italian boy who had written to Francis because he was worried about his ailing aunt, the phone in suite 201 of the Santa Marta hotel, the residence within Vatican grounds where the pope lives, has seemingly gone unused lately.
It could also very well be that many, such as Maso until just now, have kept their personal conversations with the pope private, content in the knowledge that Francis read their letters and reached out personally to assure them of his prayers.