Earlier this week, the Catholic Church and indeed the entire world celebrated the fifth anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. That night, 13th March 2013, started off as a fairly ordinary night. The conclave to elect the successor to Benedict XVI who had resigned the month before was into its second day, and it was widely expected that unlike the election of Benedict XVI this conclave may last a few days. I had, therefore, retired to bed, comfortable in the prevailing opinion that I would wake up the next day with no change to the status quo.
I was, however, awoken very early in the morning of 14th March (Australian time) by my smartphone alerting me to the fact that a new Bishop of Rome had been elected. And so I was able to rise, turn on the television, make myself the first of many cups of coffee that day, and await the formal announcement from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. The television coverage, while awaiting the announcement, was at times painstakingly boring, with many news channels displaying the usual range of “talking heads” trying to preempt the announcement, prognosticating on who had been elected, going through all the papabile with commentary on their likelihood of success, their curricula vitae, and what their election might mean for the future of the Church. It was, I have to confess, slightly amusing, because no one apart from the Cardinal electors knew the result of the conclave…and everyone else, including the world’s media, would have to wait for the traditional rituals and customs of the Church to unfold at their own pace.
Eventually, when everyone involved was ready and prepared, the Cardinal Protodeacon, Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, the then President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, stepped out on to the central balcony of St Peter’s and, as is customary, made the formal announcement:
|Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: HABEMUS PAPAM! Eminentissimum ac reverendissum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio, Qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.||I announce to you a great joy. WE HAVE A POPE! The Most Eminent and Reverend Lord, Lord Jorge Mario, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Bergoglio, Who takes to himself the name Francis.|
And then something unusual happened, something that would herald the tone of the papacy of Francis and which continues down to the present day.
Before imparting his blessing, the new Bishop of Rome asked the assembled crowd, and the entire Catholic Church, to pray for him as he embarked on this new ministry. In a wonderful sign of humility, their Pope, their leader, bowed before those watching him and in silence – a silence that was real and palpable – was prayed for by those whom he had been called to serve. It was a singular moment in history, a moment of substance that would define both the man and his papacy, almost regardless of what would happen next. I remember vividly being reduced to tears as I watched the thousands of people fall into silence as the newly elected pope bowed before them asking for their prayers.
The intervening five years haven’t always been smooth sailing for Pope Francis. He has done some wonderful and marvellous things, small things in the grand scheme of things, but which have started a reform of the way in which the Church is perceived by its own adherents and by the wider world. We all remember his washing the feet of young offenders, male and female, Christian and non-Christian during the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper of his first Easter as pope; the move to live not in the Apostolic Palace but the more humble surrounds of the St Martha Guesthouse; his first apostolic visit as pope to the island of Lampedusa, to the place where refugees first step into Europe. All these things, and so many more, have been very powerful events in the life of Pope Francis for good.
Of course, there have been some less than helpful moments. Along with the good, we remember his occasional misstatements; the opposition within the Church to his efforts to bring reform and God’s mercy to Christians and to the world; the seeming lack of progress in addressing the great scourge of the abuse of children by members of the Church, clerical and lay, and the associated preference for cover up rather than protection. All of these mistakes and missteps are damaging not only to Francis but also to the Church and its mission at a broader level.
And yet, the Pope continues in his efforts to live out the Christian life as best he can, making mistakes but always returning to the God of mercy to seek to continue the task. Pope Francis knows he is not perfect – in one of his first interviews after his election he described himself as a sinner – but is faithful to the call he received when he was baptised to live in response to Christ’s Gospel.
Such an example is worthy of emulation by anyone who claims the same title of baptised.