If you're not getting a call from the pope, you're nobody

Either Pope Francis is an old man with nothing better to do than sit around his palace calling old friends, or he has crafted a clever-as-a-fox public relations campaign -- or he's just an extremely nice person. The newly installed and famously down-to-earth pontiff recently called the newspaper kiosk that supplied his paper in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription. The result is heartwarming:

Around 1:30 p.m. local time on March 18, Daniel Del Regno, the kiosk owner's son, answered the phone and heard a voice say, "Hi Daniel, it's Cardinal Jorge."

He thought that maybe a friend who knew that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires bought the newspaper from them every day was pulling a prank on him.

"Seriously, it's Jorge Bergoglio, I'm calling you from Rome," the Pope insisted.

"I was in shock, I broke down in tears and didn't know what to say," Del Regno told the Argentinean daily La Nacion. "He thanked me for delivering the paper all this time and sent best wishes to my family."

Del Regno shared that when Cardinal Bergoglio left for Rome for the conclave, he asked him if he thought he would be elected Pope. 

"He answered me, ‘That is too hot to touch. See you in 20 days, keep delivering the paper.' And the rest is, well, history," he said.

"I told him to take care and that I would miss him," Del Regno continued. "I asked him if there would ever be the chance to see him here again. He said that for the time being that would be very difficult, but that he would always be with us."

Hours after his election, Francis placed another call, this time to Italian journalist Stefania Falasca. This time, it was just to chat:

"The phone rang.... My son picked it up and it was the pope," Stefania Falasca, a former editor for a Catholic monthly, told Italian media.

"At home we just called him 'father', we never called him 'eminence'. I didn't know what to say. I asked him 'Father, what am I meant to call you? Holy Father?'" she said.

"He laughed and he told me 'The first phone call I wanted to make was to say hello to you, Gianni and the kids,'" she said.

Incredulity seems to be the universal reaction to getting a call from God's representative on earth. When Francis tried to place a call to a Jesuit colleague and informed the receptionist who was calling, the receptionist shot back, "Oh yes? And I'm Napoleon." All this -- he's also called his dentist to cancel his appointments -- makes us wonder: If you haven't gotten a call from Francis, does that mean you're a nobody?

Franco Origlia/Getty Images


Lebanon's government comes toppling down

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati just tendered his resignation, leaving a political vacuum in Beirut. It couldn’t come at a more tense moment, as the sectarian bloodshed in Syria risks spilling over into Lebanon.

The last time a Lebanese government collapsed, it was Jan. 12, 2011, and the Arab Spring promptly broke out -- Tunisia would kick out Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in two days, and Egypt was mere weeks from the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time, the government has collapsed among a period of regional and domestic stagnation: The Syrian uprising is grinding on, and the political forces in Beirut found themselves unable to agree on the most basic issues of governance.

Most importantly, the Lebanese Cabinet could not agree to extend the term of Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi. The police chief is a staunch ally of the March 14 alliance, which is opposed to the Syrian regime -- the other major March 14 supporter in the security services, Wissam al-Hassan, was killed by a car bomb in October. Rifi’s exit, then, would leave the March 14 forces defenseless and give President Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Beirut a chance to install a loyalist. For his own political survival, Miqati couldn’t let that happen on his watch.

Security in Lebanon had also begun to fray in recent days. Assad’s warplanes on March 18 bombed the border town of Arsal, which is seen as a hub for the flow of fighters and weapons into Syria. The northern city of Tripoli also erupted in violence on March 21, resulting in the deaths of five people, as the interior minister warned that events there were beyond the state’s ability to control.

Whether anything actually changes in Lebanon because of the government’s collapse, however, remains up in the air. Miqati could limp along as the caretaker prime minister for months as the political forces debate the formation of the next government, or he could be re-nominated as the prime minister, at the head of a unity government. Alternatively, the anti-Assad political coalition could reassert itself and form a government with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri at its head – a move that would put it on a collision course with Hezbollah and its allies.

The swing vote in this process will be Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt. When I profiled him last year, I asked whether anything could convince him to bring the government down: "No, nothing," he said. "I’m staying in the government. So far we have managed with Hezbollah to regulate our differences about Syria peacefully."

What happens in Beirut over the next few weeks will determine whether that still holds true.