Francis: A Papal Surprise

A few days ago, on just the second day of the conclave and on the fifth ballot, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected the 266th Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, and the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, and has taken the name of Francis. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pontiff, and the first non-European pope in many centuries.

This new pope brought many surprises. For one thing, I did not expect the cardinals to elect a new pontiff so quickly, given that they seemed to lack clear direction in the wake of Pope Benedict’s stunning resignation, and the fact that no single cardinal stood out as a clear front-runner going into this conclave. But apparently the cardinal electors had already begun to form a consensus around a particular candidate when they entered the conclave-a candidate about whom they did not speak openly to the news media. That was a tactful move on their part, and a brilliant way of dealing with the modern world media machine that tries its best to influence the election of the next pope. They allowed journalists to focus on their favorite candidates and indulge in their favorite speculations, and then pulled the rug from under their feet with the quick election of a “dark horse.” It’s plainly obvious that the cardinal electors did not allow the world’s media to influence their decision. That is heartening, and the cardinal electors deserve our great respect and warm congratulations for carrying out their duty so well amid difficult circumstances. In choosing a pope, their solemn responsibility is to follow their consciences and cast their ballot for the man whom they feel is best qualified to lead the Church at this particular moment. And they have taken that responsibility seriously, thanks be to God.

For another thing, I was not expecting this particular cardinal to be elected to the papacy. I did include him on my list of thirty-two papabili because according to my research he met the qualifications for a serious papal candidate; however, I put him a ways down the list (at #20) because I felt he was a bit of a long shot, mainly because of his age and relative obscurity. I also felt a Latin American pope was less likely than an Italian or other European. But age, nationality, and familiarity with the general public are only secondary considerations for the cardinal electors in choosing a new pope.

Also, I was not expecting a Jesuit pope, but I am nonetheless delighted to see one. I have great respect for the Jesuits because of their high education and faithful service to the Church over the centuries as well as in our own day. They were founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola to be simple yet highly trained and loyal servants of the pope, and they were forbidden to accept ecclesiastical honors such as being made a bishop, a cardinal, or pope. So it is ironic to have a Jesuit who has accepted all three of these honors. But of course, it is up to the pope to appoint bishops and name cardinals, and he can bestow these honors on whomever he thinks should be given them. And it’s up to the cardinals to elect a pope and to choose the man whom they believe is most suited for that position. Saint Ignatius perceived that the danger in accepting honors is that they can make men proud and arrogant. But even with his great learning, Jorge Bergoglio is obviously a humble man and has remained so, which is why he was given these honors-and why it was appropriate that he should have been given them. He accepted them in humble obedience to the authority of the Church, not out of pride or to advance his ecclesiastical career. His education as a Jesuit will no doubt prove a valuable contribution to the papacy and the Church.

And finally, I was not expecting the new pope to take a name that no previous pontiff has used. I thought he would call himself Pope John Paul III or Benedict XVII or Paul VII or John XXIV or Pius XIII or something like that. But no, he chose Francis. What a beautiful and appropriate name–perhaps in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, the poor and humble man, and Saint Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary–or perhaps in honor of Saint Francis de Sales, the sixteenth-century “gentleman saint.”

This man was unfamiliar to me; I had never really seen him prior to his appearance on the loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When he first came out on the balcony, initially he seemed a little distant and reserved, perhaps even a bit nervous and fearful, as he stood there almost motionless, solemnly facing the massive crowds of cheering people in Saint Peter’s Square, acknowledging their applause with an occasional slight wave of one hand. He seemed as stunned as we were by the cardinals’ choice of a pope. Frankly, I felt a bit sorry for him. Just like Cardinal Ratzinger before him, he did not want to be elected pope, and probably did not even expect it. As he stood there before us, clothed simply in the white papal garments with his pectoral cross, he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders-and in a very real sense he did, because the modern papacy is a tremendous responsibility. His rigid and dignified stance reminded me of earlier pre-Vatican II pontiffs.

Then as His Holiness began speaking into the microphone, smiling as he warmly greeted the people in Italian, my apprehensions melted away and I was instantly won over to the new pope. His words of greeting lasted at least a minute, longer than those of the two previous pontiffs. In a thoughtful and respectful gesture, he first directed our attention to his great predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and led us in praying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for him. I was impressed by how he then bowed down in front of the whole world and asked us, the faithful, to pray that God would bless him before he gave us his first blessing as our new Shepherd in Christ. Once he had done that, he added a few words of farewell, saying he looked forward to seeing the people on Sunday, and wishing them good night.

This is clearly a man of profound humility, simplicity and deep faith, a man of restrained and even temperament who also knows how to communicate with an audience through carefully chosen words and meaningful gestures-a man who, I believe, will evangelize the world mainly through his own powerful example of holiness.

Now that I’m getting to know Pope Francis a little better, and who he was as Cardinal Bergoglio, I realize that my first impressions of this man as being distant and fearful were inaccurate. This is not a bold and outgoing character like Pope John Paul II or a shy and gentle scholar like Pope Benedict XVI. This is a different kind of man altogether: noble and dignified, reserved and correct, with quiet presence, yet nonetheless a man of deep joy, kind and cheerful, who is able to connect with people. He has his own personality and style, and as he stepped onto the world stage as our new pope, he was more or less simply being himself.

I do gather one thing in particular about this man’s unique personality and style from the time we spent waiting for him to emerge after the white smoke and the official announcement of his election, and the time he took on the balcony to greet us and lead us in prayer, and how he lingered a moment before departing. This is a man who is not in a hurry. He takes his time, and is comfortable doing so. And I believe that that sends a very significant message to our modern, fast-paced, highly secularized and materialistic twenty-first-century world, in which we are pressured to rush to get so many different things, that there is something far more important than everything else that is worth not rushing for. It is when we slow down and let go and listen that God can speak to us in the stillness of our hearts. We must have the courage to shut out the world from time to time in order to deepen our relationship with God and allow him to direct our lives towards our heavenly goal.

As I continue to observe the papacy, I’m coming to learn that each pope is unique and has something special to teach us. Pope John Paul II taught us to be bold and fearless in proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Pope Benedict XVI taught us the importance of being correctly formed in our faith and of keeping the liturgy and the Second Vatican Council within the proper context of the Church’s rich tradition. And I believe that Pope Francis will teach us how to slow down and listen to the Holy Spirit, as well as how to serve the Lord and one another in simplicity, humility, and charity. His style will take some getting used to, but we will get used to it just as we got accustomed to the style of Pope Benedict XVI before him. I’m sure he will do a fine job of succeeding the two great pontiffs of our time, and will continue leading the Church in the direction it has been taken by Popes John Paul and Benedict.

We are truly blessed to have Pope Francis as our new Holy Father. May God bless him and help him, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the Angels and Saints, to faithfully carry out the task entrusted to him for years to come.

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