14 March 2013

Habemus Papam!

To be in Rome for a Papal election is a great grace, as spiritually uplifting as it is exciting.  Yesterday certainly proved so for me.

Last night I was assigned to celebrate the conventual Mass at the Basilica of San Clemente—our Priory church—here in Rome.  I had been watching the news, and by the time Mass started at 6:30 Rome time, I knew there was no smoke from the Sistine chimney yet.  But, I knew that the later it got, the more likely we would get smoke.  It usually takes about a ½ hour to say Mass, meaning it would end around 7:00pm, just at the time the next smoke was expected.  But that morning the smoke was 20 minutes early, so I was afraid we’d have a Pope in the middle of my Mass.

I did my best not to rush Mass—at least not to rush it too much!  I think most people were in the Square or watching events on the television, as there were very few of the faithful for Mass.  I ended up concluding Mass in a bit under 30 minutes.  As soon as I finished, I cleaned up after Mass, locked the Basilica, turned out the lights, grabbed my cappa and camera and made for the bus.  It was about 7:05pm in Rome.  Seconds after stepping out of the doors of the Priory, I received a text to my phone.  It was one word, but spoke volumes: “White!”  I began to quicken my pace.

As I got out of our garden and onto the street, I spotted one of my confreres coming off the Tram.  I told him the smoke is white, and that I was grabbing a cab.  He quickly followed.  Fortunately, there is a major taxi stop in front of a hotel down the street and around the corner from us.  The brother and I—neither of us in top athletic form—ran for the taxi stand.  There was, praise God, a line of cabs waiting.  As we climbed in the first I breathlessly exclaimed: “Fumata Bianca!  Andate a San Pietro!”  (White Smoke!  Go to St. Peter’s!).  As I said before, I was never more thankful for crazy Roman cabbies.

We made our way down the street, seeing more and more cars and people flowing in the direction of St. Peter’s.  The bus stops were full, and increasing crowds of people were walking towards the square.  Amazingly though, the traffic, while slow, kept moving.  As we were driving, we saw two more Irish friars on the street.  Stopped for a pause in the traffic, they jumped into the cab as well.  We were four friars packed in a small Roman cab, crawling our way through city traffic.

As we got close to the Ponte Vittorio Emmanuel—the main bridge leading across the Tiber from the ancient walled city towards the Vatican—we saw that the police had closed off the bridge.  We got as close as we could and jumped out of the cab.  Not wanting to wait for change, the cabbie received a sizeable tip.  Now, my general rule is that one ought to run only when being chased or giving chase.  I suppose I was chasing a view of the new Pope.  I missed the white smoke; I was not going to miss his appearance at the loggia.  I ran.

The main street into the Square—the Via Conciliazione—was a river of people and for me, a moving obstacle course.  With a few friars following, I twisted around tourists, skirted around sisters, and passed by the press.  While there were many people, the crowds were not packed together.  There was room to maneuver, and I took every advantage.  With two other friars following behind the wake I made in the crowd, we got as far as we could—when the loosely grouped crowd became a tightly packed wall.  We were off to the side, and had an excellent view of the loggia.

And then we waited.  The crowds struck me first and foremost as very young.  There were lots and lots of young people.  Directly around us were reporters from a French radio station (one of the friars spoke a very passable French), a very young seminarian with a South American accent, a group of American college students, an Italian cameraman, and various voices and accents from just about everywhere.  I was amused especially by the American student who had dressed up for a scheduled formal dinner in Rome and dropped by the Piazza just to see what might happen.  She thought she might miss her dinner—I told her that given this crowd, she almost certainly would!

And we waited some more.  The crowd fluctuated from mostly boisterous to occasionally quiet.  You could see groups waving banners, hear the excited chatter of people, enjoy the singing of various groups in many different tongues, and perk up with the sound of applause, only to realize it was just that the cameras (displaying on the giant screens) had focused on another group of excited pilgrims.  And the wait seemed interminable.

After some time, the lights in the loggia came on. Cheers and applause!  We knew that we were now getting much closer.  And then another unexpected (but endured!) delay.  Every once in a while the curtains would rustle, either at the main door or at one of the side balconies. (Some of the Cardinals were peeking out to see the crowd.)  We knew that the appearance of the new Pope was imminent when the giant monitor screens went from focusing on the crowd to focusing on the loggia where the new Holy Father would be presented to the faithful.

Then it happened.  The Cardinal came out and said the words we were all expecting, in a voice that seemed a bit hoarse, with a wonderfully French-accented Latin, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:  Habemus Papam!”  Then we waited for the name.  Gregorium Marium.  Gregorium?  Gregory?  Who might that be?  There was some uncertainly at first, until people began to realize that the Spanish version of Gregory was Jorge:  Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  It was the South American, the Argentinian.  I had heard his name, but he was certainly not one of the main names being bantered around in the press.  (I will admit some guilty joy in how absolutely wrong the secular press was about this election!)  All I knew was that he was a Jesuit from Buenos Aires.  This was the first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope from the Americas.  This was truly an historic moment.

And this is one of the things that made this announcement so different than the one eight years ago.  Unlike then, we hardly knew this new Pope.  Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) was a prolific author and speaker before his election to the See of Peter.  Thanks to Ignatius Press, many of his writings were available in English.  The vast majority of young friars and seminarians I knew were Ratzinger groupies, great admirers of his writing and his thought.  He had a way of presenting the truths of the faith in ways that were at once new and ancient, and always exciting.  And most of us were profoundly affected especially by Ratzinger’s meditations on the Liturgy, his book The Spirit of the Liturgy.  Even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the most influential theologians of the late 20th century.  But Jorge Mario Bergoglio?  We hardly knew anything about him in that Square.  But that did not stop us from cheering.  After these days without a Pope, we had a Holy Father again.  And the Cardinals had just gone into Conclave yesterday!  We may not have known him well, but we were happy to have a Pope!

He was introduced to us as Francesco, Francis: another first.  We’ve never had a Pope Francis before.  It seems clear now that the choice of the name was in honor of the humility and poverty of the great patron of Italy, St. Francis of Assisi.  As Archbishop, Pope Francis’s love and concern of the poor of Argentina are legendary.  At the same time, St. Francis is also famous for his dream of God asking him to rebuild the Church.  St. Francis’s Church of the Middle Ages was no Christian paradise.  It had its own share of corruption, sinfulness, and weak faith.  But St. Francis did not bring a program of bureaucratic reform, but the example of total conversion of heart.  And this was no dour Christianity.  Rather, St. Francis radiated a great joy in his life of poverty given over totally to Jesus.  He was the troubadour for Christ—the man in love with God with a serene happiness that was infectious.  His movement of friars reinvigorated much of the Church with a simple and radical love of Christ and his Church, suffused with the joy that only true love can give.  By taking this name as his own, this Pope Francis seems to desire to model these aspects of the saintly friar:  a radical love for Christ, especially in the lives of the poor, a reform rooted in the life of conversion, and the great and overwhelming joy of knowing God in Christ Jesus.

And then the Pope came out to speak.  His first words were disarmingly casual:  Fratelli e Sorelli, Buonasera.  (Brothers and Sisters.  Good evening.)  Although his parentage was Italian, his Argentinian accent was very clear.  His voice was clear and commanding, and we soon began to pray, beginning with our prayers for our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.  Pope Francis led us strongly in the Lord’s prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, all in Italian.  I did note that while his Italian was strong for the Our Father, he seemed to fight a bit against the habit of his own native Spanish when he came to the Hail Mary.  While he was used to the Italian Padre Nostro from Mass, he was more comfortable with the private Dios te salve Maria from his praying of the Rosary.

As brilliant as Pope Benedict XVI was, one of the things that separated him from his predecessor was his relative lack of a Marian devotion.  Bl. Pope John Paul II so loved the Virgin Mary he broke from heraldic tradition to add the Marian “M” to his papal coat of arms.  In comparison, Pope Benedict’s Marian devotion was much more muted.  It’s not that it was absent, just that it did not shape his faith with the degree that it did Bl. John Paul II’s.  With Pope Francis, the Marian devotion seems clearly to come again to the fore. He said last night that one of the first things he will do this morning is to spend time in prayer, seeking the intercession of the Mother of God for the people of Rome and, we presume, his own papacy.  He has that instinctive faith, infused with a Marian sensibility, which has long characterized Catholic piety.

One of the striking things about these days has been the behavior of the crowds that have flocked to these events.  As I have mentioned, they can be energetically joyful.  However, when the Pope asked that we pray together, the crowd became very, very quiet.  A few hundred thousand people and it was nearly silent.  Just as St. Francis did, this crowd proved the compatibility of a festive faith with a respectful reverence.  This was for me one of the most moving parts of the night: this reverence with which this crowd—so young, catholic, and Catholic—prayed together with our new Holy Father.

And just as quickly, it was all over.  Many began to move away.  We waited for a few more minutes, just lingering in the experience for a bit (and taking a few more pictures).   As we got out of the crowd into the center of the square, the festivity returned.  There were groups of young pilgrims dancing, singing, chattering, and doing what you’d expect groups of happy young Christians to do.

Eventually we were approached by a young woman with a BBC jacket asking us if we spoke English and would be willing to be on Radio.  We were brought to the “Presenter” – a young Irish woman from Dublin with her headphones and BBC microphone.  They’d gathered a group together—the two friars from Ireland, myself (an American), a young priest from Blackpool in England, a young man from Argentina, and a middle-aged couple on holiday from Ireland.  While we were waiting I spoke briefly with a young TV reporter from Channel 6 in Philly.  Again and again I was struck by how international—how catholic—everything was.  And then the interview began.  It was fairly benign, asking out thoughts and reflections.  It was the clichéd “how did you feel”, just asked in a slightly different way.  We all—and particularly the Argentinian—expressed our excitement at the new Pope and our thankfulness for being present at this momentous event.

And after this we went home, with a quick stop at one of our favorite Roman Pizzerias for a quick bite, and a toast to our new Pope (In honor of the new Pope, I had the Franziskaner Weissbier!):

To Pope Francis, the first to take the name, may he be granted long life and a fruitful reign.  Viva il Papa!