Pope Francis surprises

It hasn’t yet been a week since he was elected, but the man announced as Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis who first appeared to the world on the loggia of St. Peter’s and stood stiff and straight and speechless for what seemed a long time took only a few minutes to throw the world off balance. In a good way.

The ‘firsts’ are legendary now. First Jesuit pope, first Pope Francis, first pope to ask for the people’s prayers for him and bow to receive it in a moment of silence, before he blessed them. And so on. He is who he is, and so profoundly and historically weighty an elevation as this was not going to change him. Take a look at this brief video of the cardinals greeting him after the election. Many of them left laughing. And the account of the doorman at the Jesuit house in Rome who answered the phone when the pope called to thank the Father General for his gracious letter of congratulations.

Over the weekend Facebook was filled with photos of the new pope checking out at his hotel in Rome and paying his own bill from his own funds, in his white papal garments. Which were quickly followed by photos from inside the bus where cardinals were shuttled around Vatican grounds and there in one of the bus seats was a white-robed pope. He opted for that ride instead of a chauffered car. The Vatican is not used to this.

He greeted the credentialed journalists who covered the  conclave and his election – about 6,000 of them – and disarmed them with his ready wit and easy smile. And a message that was pointed and direct but warm.

The role of the mass media has expanded immensely in these years, so much so that they are an essential means of informing the world about the events of contemporary history. I would like, then, to thank you in a special way for the professional coverage which you provided during these days – you really worked, didn’t you? – when the eyes of the whole world, and not just those of Catholics, were turned to the Eternal City and particularly to this place which has as its heart the tomb of Saint Peter. Over the past few weeks, you have had to provide information about the Holy See and about the Church, her rituals and traditions, her faith and above all the role of the Pope and his ministry.

I am particularly grateful to those who viewed and presented these events of the Church’s history in a way which was sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith.
Historical events almost always demand a nuanced interpretation which at times can also take into account the dimension of faith. Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual…

He also gave them a scoop.

Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes [OFM]: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor! Afterwards, people were joking with me. “But you should call yourself Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need a reform…” And someone else said to me: “No, no: your name should be Clement”. “But why?” “Clement XV: thus you pay back Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!” These were jokes. I love all of you very much, I thank you for everything you have done. I pray that your work will always be serene and fruitful, and that you will come to know ever better the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the rich reality of the Church’s life.

The next day, his first to celebrate Mass and deliver the traditional mid-day Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Francis took to the streets near the Vatican in an impromptu outreach to the people. It must have given the papal security detail fits. But that’s how he sees the mission of helping people ‘to know ever better the Gospel’ and ‘rich reality of the Church’s life’ and it’s the way he did it in Argentina.

So what did papal biographer George Weigel, one of the top world experts on the Catholic Church and the papacy, chief Vatican analyst for NBC News, have to say about this pick, after all? After the beloved and legendary John Paul II. After Benedict XVI. Excellent philosopher succeeded by excellent theologian, both of whom had participated in Vatican II and the blueprint for the Church’s engagement with the modern world. After Weigel recently released his latest book ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ as a blueprint for ‘Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church’?

With great aplomb, Weigel called Francis ‘The First American Pope’, and pronounced him just the right pick.

The swift election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., as bishop of Rome is replete with good news — and not a little irony. To reverse the postmodern batting order, let’s begin with the good news.

A true man of God. The wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Via della Conciliazione and Via dell’Erba this morning had a keen insight into his new bishop: “Sono molto contento; e un profeta” (“I’m very happy; he’s a prophet”). That was certainly the overwhelming impression I took away from the hour I spent with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and future pope last May — here was a genuine man of God, who lives “out” from the richness and depth of his interior life; a bishop who approaches his responsibilities as a churchman and his decisions as the leader of a complex organization from a Gospel-centered perspective, in a spirit of discernment and prayer…

A pope for the New Evangelization. The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.

Weigel nailed that, “parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored.” How to address the global culture today, and even find mission fields?

Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:

The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.

Something much more, and much deeper, and much more accessible is needed.

That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history.

Judging from the boatload of other stories to cover, from Washington politics to Wall Street and Eurozone finances, Middle East flashpoints and middle America unrest, UN humanitarian relief missions to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, this is one to get right to get the rest at all. Because they are all centered on the dignity and humanity of the human person, and the right order of the way things ought to be, beautifully articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents issued in between and since.

Pope Francis is officially installed at the Mass of Inauguration on Tuesday. It may be just another day to a lot of people. But it’s a new day for a lot of humanity.

‘We have a pope’

Habemus papam. The first words of the proclamation that was just earlier signaled by the effusive white smoke billowing from the chimney rising out of the Sistine Chapel followed by the loudly chiming bells of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Just enough time for people who weren’t already there to run to the square from all directions and be part of the world’s biggest celebratory love fest.

It’s very cool that in this day when some media called for the church to come up with the times and open the Sistine Chapel to cameras or set up an alert over digital media when they had elected a pope, centuries old tradition holds strong and we’re riveted globally on a smokestack watching for the color of the puffs that emerged, waiting eagerly and anxiously for the smoke to emerge. It’s a rich metaphor.

So on the fifth ballot of the Conclave, the global media was riveted on the smokestack, and a bird landed atop it at the right moment when camera closeups were fixed on it. Someone quickly set up a Twitter account for it as SistineSeagull.

Maybe it portended something. A pope who would be associated with a love of nature and birds in particular. Who knows.

The college of cardinals knew something about what the Church needed at this particular time in history, and the smoke signalled the election of a humble Jesuit.

The 76-year-old Bergoglio, who served as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the first pope to take the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, revered among Catholics for his work with the poor. St. Francis is viewed as a reformer of the church, answering God’s call to “repair my church in ruins.”

The pontiff is considered a straight shooter who calls things as he sees them, and a follower of the church’s most social conservative wing.

As a cardinal, he clashed with the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over his opposition to gay marriage and free distribution of contraceptives.

Latin America is home to 480 million Catholics. By choosing Bergoglio, the cardinals sent a strong message about where the future of the church may lie.

According to a profile by CNN Vatican analyst John Allen and published by the National Catholic Reporter, Francis was born in Buenos Aires to an Italian immigrant father.

He is known for his simplicity. He chose to live in an apartment rather that the archbishop’s palace, passed on a chauffeured limousine, took the bus to work and cooked his own meals, Allen wrote.

Francis has a reputation for being a voice for the poor.

It was a jaw dropper for just about everyone outside the Sistine Chapel, including longtime Vatican watchers.

Bergoglio’s selection of the name of Pope Francis is “the most stunning” choice and “precedent shattering,” Allen said. “The new pope is sending a signal that this will not be business as usual.”

The name symbolizes “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church,” Allen said.

I already felt that the choice was directed, as the Catholic Church prays and believes, by the Holy Spirit. When the media are all over the top 10 or so contenders and hitting on that topic day after day, they are preparing the way for the eventual leader who fits their bill. This was a curve ball.

One of my sources speculated that Chicago’s highly respected Cardinal Francis George played a major role in this election.

But George said the choice of Bergoglio was unexpected. During the extended conversations shared in the cardinals’ general congregation, Bergoglio’s name never came up, he said. But when the ballots were counted by the conclave Wednesday morning, the path to electing Bergoglio seemed clear, George said.

Which only added to the spiritual direction of this conclave.

“Most of all, he is a man who has a heart for the poor,” George said. “Cardinal Bergoglio, now Francis our pope, is well-known in Buenos Aires for his life with the poor, which has sometimes gotten him into some conflict with his own government. Nonetheless, it’s been consistent. He lives with the poor, and that is I think the reason why he chose the name Francis.

“I think it all came together in an extraordinary fashion,” George added. “I wouldn’t have expected it to happen either this fast or even the way it developed in terms of the choices available to us. I believe the Holy Spirit makes clear which way we should go. And we went that way very quickly.”

Who is this new pope? Rome Reports.

Besides that, here’s a hastily pulled together report on the new pastor in chief, and it’s a good one. Papal biographer George Weigel, who has done analysis these past few weeks for NBC News, keeps calling this a ‘hinge moment’ in the church, in which it’s turning a corner and beginning a new era of reform in the 21st centuary when ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ will propose a new face to the world. Read the First Things post at that link. It’s loaded with links to other good information.

A snip:

George Weigel told NBC News that the new pope is “a very brave man”:

“He will be a great defender of religion around the world.”

“The papacy has moved to the New World. The church has a new pope with a new name,” he added. “I think it speaks to the church’s commitment to the poor of the world and compassion in a world that often needs a lot of healing.”

And…

Finally, Pope Francis’ episcopal motto was “miserando atque eligendo” (lowly and yet chosen)—which sounds like the feeling he must have as he ascends to the papacy.

It’s a new day, and the beginning of a new era.

Pope Benedict’s retirement fatigue

The man himself is clearly a tired and overly wrought servant who recognizes and admits his failing health and strength. The global coverage of his historic announcement to step down has unleashed an exhausting barrage of analysis, mostly from those who know not of what they speak.

It’s been a long day of gathering and reporting news, and there will be many more days and weeks of it to come. For now, take a look at how Elizabeth Scalia put things together here.

…on consideration, this almost seems typical of Benedict, particularly if his health is failing. He would have hated a long drawn out affair with pilgrims waiting within the basilica courtyard for his death. If John Paul went out like the sustained note of a grand organ, fading into silence, Benedict simply senses his tiredness and the hour, closes up his piano, and bids us adieu. Ratzinger, in the end, is still Ratzinger: he does his work, kisses it all up to the Holy Spirit and moves on, not particularly concerned about the peripheral yakking of man or media.

Well put. I have a profound respect for both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I’ve read both extensively and appreciate them as brilliant pieces of one magnificent concert. I have much to say, but I’m first a listener. With a filter. 

I’ll be devoting time and attention to this important transition in the Catholic Church at this moment in history, in the days and weeks to come. For now, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be in the presence of both popes and follow their global journeys to reach the ends of the earth with the timeless and universal truths about human dignity and the sanctity of life and the interconnectedness of everything. I received their blessing personally, and the world did globally.

Whether people they blessed know it or not.