No protocol and no servants, but there are parting gifts!

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Praxilla Trabattoni
Updated September 17, 2015 01:20 PM
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Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty

While State Department protocol officials fuss over a dress code for lawmakers and others who will meet Pope Francis during his visit to Washington next week (conservative dress in dark colors, and, please, ladies, no bare elbows or knees!), those who actually know the pontiff say he’s no stickler about appearance – or protocol.

In exclusive photos and interviews for this week’s PEOPLE, personal friends of the Pope from his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina – where he was known as the priest (then Archbishop, then Cardinal) Jorge Mario Bergoglio – give a rare glimpse into the simple and casual home life of the man who leads the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Mercedes Ninci is an Argentine journalist who, in August, attended a private baptism in Santa Marta, the dorm-style guesthouse where Francis bunks. (When he was first elected in 2013, Francis declined the luxe Papal Palace apartments of his predecessors.)

“We arrived at Santa Marta, where two gentlemen in suits took us directly to the chapel. They then left and we never saw them again. In came two small nuns to light the candles and then, with no announcement, in walked Jorge, with a big smile on his face and arms wide open, ready to embrace is all,” said Ninci.

The small group of friends included Gustavo Vera and Lucas Schaerer, two community activists with the corruption- and crime-fighting organization, La Alameda, who worked with Francis when he was a “street priest” ministering door to door in Buenos Aires. Francis was honoring his friends by baptizing baby Simona, Schaerer’s daughter with Ana Romero, and his stepdaughter, Charo Romero.

None would have passed State Department inspection, Ninci recalls with a chuckle.

“Ana showed up wearing a low-cut, super summery short dress. Lucas was in washed-out shorts, a beach shirt and sandals. I think we would have had trouble walking into a normal church and here we were in front of the Pope!”

And Francis – or Jorge, as they call him – was hardly put off. He proceeded with a lovely and meaningful service, Schaerer said.

“He explained the liturgy step by step. When it got to the moment of wetting our daughters’ heads with the holy water, he told us that he always liked to wet the hands of the baptized, too, as it was with their hands that the baptized would be working and helping others.”

After the ceremony, says Ninci, Francis pointed to a door and suggested they move to a sitting room. “I turned for one last look of the very small, cozy chapel and there was Jorge, going around and blowing out all the candles. Then, when he showed us to another room, he switched off the lights, saying, “I can’t help it. It’s the priest in me.”

As the old friends talked, the conversation turned to grappa, the Italian brandy. When Ana Romero said she’d never tried it, “Jorge got up, told us he would be back, and disappeared for 10 minutes or so. He went to fetch a bottle for her from his quarters,” says Ninci. “No servants at his beck and call.”

Ninci, too, left with a gift. “I asked if he would do a video message for my children. He sweetly agreed and addressed each one of them, blessing them via video.”

For more on the private world of Pope Francis and his upcoming trip to the United States, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now