As the white smoke began to pour out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, my heart began pounding. I felt a great deal of nervous excitement to hear the outcome. The more minutes that passed between the reports of white smoke and movement on the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica, the more nervous and excited I became. Finally, after what seemed like hours had passed, “Habemus Papam!” was declared.
Then the name, “Cardinalem Bergoglio”. Wait. Who? As Lino Rulli and Fr. Dave Dwyer quickly began reciting the bio on The Catholic Channel, to be honest, my heart sank a little when they revealed that he was 76 years old. As much as I hate to admit it, the first thought that came to my mind was “Is this really who is supposed to inject new life into the Church?”
I bought into the “it will be a younger man” prognostications. For me, I wanted that Karol Wojtyla moment. I missed out on the joy of being Catholic when John Paul II was the energetic, jet-setting shepherd that inspired “santo subito” to be shouted upon his death. In my heart, I wanted someone with the spirit of Cardinal Dolan, and as Pope Francis walked out, my first impression was the opposite of that.
Now, despite all of that, in what little deposit of wisdom that I have obtained over the years, I’ve learned that first impressions are not everything, and that one should never underestimate a pope elected in his late seventies. I cannot count the number of people I know who had reactions similar to what I described above when Pope Benedict was elected eight years ago, yet most of them grew to love and respect him.
Pope Francis has already started to lift my spirit with the message of his first homily. He was quoted in a striking statement saying “if you don’t pray to the Lord, you pray to the Devil.” In a world of political correctness, ecumenical obsession, and spiritual relativism, it is reassuring to hear our new shepherd speak so bluntly about the spiritual warfare that is taking place. On top of that, in a way of almost speaking directly to me, he reminded the College of Cardinals to reject pessimism and keep reverence toward the wisdom of old age.
Then, there is his humble, unassuming nature. The pictures of him washing the feet of AIDS patients or riding a Buenos Aires public bus paint a beautiful picture of a shepherd among his sheep, not above them. While I love the pomp and beauty of the papacy, it is easy to be charmed by the simplicity that he wants to bring the the Chair of St. Peter.
I also like the fact that he is truly an outsider when it comes to the Roman Curia. If you believe any of the speculation, it appears that an outsider is needed to help clean up a place from which Benedict XVI was so ready to remove himself. Pope Francis seems to be a man very capable of shrugging the norms and making any changes he sees necessary.
Above all, it will take some time to get to know this man. Unlike Benedict, his background and teachings are a virtual unknown to the English speaking world. This is a time to trust the Holy Spirit and to pray fervently for our Church and Her new leader, and despite first impressions, I am ready to do just that. Viva il Papa!
”And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 16:18-19 (Revised Standard Version)