All the world’s television stations have been glued to the Vatican most of Tuesday March 12 and all of Wednesday March 13 until the white smoke started billowing from the Chimney, signalling the end of what everyone had been calling “Chimney Watch”.
The record 5,600 journalists who gathered in Rome for the Conclave have been all but kept on tenterhooks. They placed bets, if not with money, but surely on their reputations, making guesses as to who would be elected. When the black smokes started coming out of the Sistine chapel chimney, signalling that no one had been elected, the voice of caution began to beckon. The word on the street by Wednesday 13 March from the journalists was that if by that evening, none of the major people they were putting forward as papabile made it, “all bets would be off”, that is to say, they would no longer be able to predict who would be Pope.
Well, the Pope did get elected by Wednesday evening but the 5,600 journalists all the same, got it all wrong big time! And all bets should indeed be off, because once again it was made clear that God’s ways are not man’s – and the person chosen to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was neither of Cardinals Angelo Scola of Milan, nor Marc Ouellet of Canada nor Scherer of Brazil. It was instead a humble, 76 year old South American pastor from Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires with a great reputation for personal holiness and Christian poverty.
From the moment he stepped out on the Balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to give his first blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world), Pope Francis, son of n immigrant railway worker, begun already to steal hearts. There he was standing almost erect, in a clearly awed simplicity before the spectacle of the massive more than 150,000 crowd of people who defied rain and cold to come to St. Peter’s square to welcome the new Bishop of Rome. And then he stole more hearts with his first words, inviting the crowd to join him in praying for his predecessor Benedict XVI, and there and then all prayed the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, asking that Jesus keep him and that his Blessed Mother guard him.
Next he was supposed to give his Urbi et Orbi blessing but instead, he told the crowd that he wanted to beg of them a favour – that they should please pray to God for him. You would think that as a usual request to show humility, but not this man – he really meant it, and in a most telling way too. Where the entire world had for weeks been in a near turmoil of speculations of arguments and analysis, this Pope wanted to begin his pontificate with silence. Pope Francis then invited everyone to please observe some moments of silence, and then… wait for it, he bent his head, asking that all should pray for him there and then, inviting God’s blessings on the new Pope. Wow! St. Peter’s square went dead quiet and there took place an intense silent moment of prayer by hundreds of thousands of people present for their new pastor. It was only after that he himself gave his first blessing.
Prayer set the tone. Prayer changed the discourse and my guess is that it will be a major factor that will mark this Papacy, an invitation to man and woman to look inwards, to that personal examination of conscience that brings one in direct contact with his Creator every minute.
All of these is hardly surprising judging from what is known of Cardinal Bergoglio’s (now Pope Francis) past. His humility and simplicity is already the stuff of stories. A case in point, he cooks his own meals and takes the public bus to work having given up his official chauffeured limousine.
Pope Francis was born in 1936 to an Italian immigrant father who worked in the railways. He joined the Jesuits at the age of 22 where he would be ordained priest at the end of his training and studies, and would later serve as the head (Provincial) of the Jesuits in Argentina from 1973 to 1979. He has also spent many years teaching literature, psychology and philosophy, and in 1980 became the rector of the seminary from where he graduated.
Pope Francis is the first of many things. He is the first Jesuit to become Pope. He is the first Pope from Latin America, and he is the first Pope to be called Francis. Not only does he live poverty in his personal capacity but he clearly has a great love for the poor, as can be judged from this statement of his in 2007: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” a characteristic that will clearly resonate to all men and women, especially those in the developing countries.
The Conclave which elected him has been one of the shortest since from all indications he got the required two-third majority is less than five ballots, just like Benedict XVI before him, a clear indication of the unity, unanimity and consensus among his brother cardinals. Their choice also indicates that while the secular press may judge the papal election using terms and categories that hardly fit, there comes an occasional reminder such as this that the Church is a supernatural institution.
The coming days will surely be exciting times but the tone is already set for hope, which the world of today sorely needs.