In the weeks leading up to the election of Pope Francis, debates about various papal candidates dominated the press and, if you’re like me, the conversation at home. And whether Catholics consulted with their parish priest or with Paddy Power, it is likely that many had in mind a shortlist of probable popes — and were rooting for a favorite or two. It is also likely that many were prepared to feel outraged or victorious when the new pope was finally revealed — hoping that he would represent their “side” of the Church. Instead, after hearing the name of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, many were simply surprised.
Caught off guard
In some ways, this element of surprise, in and of itself, may be a helpful step toward uniting a seemingly fractured Church in this unique moment. Surprise is an emotion that disarms. When we are caught off guard, we become vulnerable; and often it is in our most vulnerable times that we are most open to accepting grace. In our surprise at hearing the name of Cardinal Bergoglio, many of us forgot our prejudices and simply focused on deciphering the new, unexpected events that unfolded before us. And when Pope Francis stepped onto the balcony, many viewers realized that a historic decision had been made — the first Jesuit; the first from Latin America; the first named Francis.
At 76, Cardinal Bergoglio was considered by many to be too old to be a serious contender for the papacy. And yet his fellow cardinals — men some consider to be predictable or set in their ways — were able to see how he might surprise and energize the Church. Pope Francis himself at first appeared as stunned as the rest of the world, as he stood dressed in white, a simple cross around his neck. Catholics everywhere soon were marveled at how easily they could relate to at least some element of this man who is a ferocious advocate for the poor and a stalwart supporter of Church teaching.
Already, I have been surprised by my renewed excitement in a Church that has at times frustrated and pained me even as it has nourished me. I appreciate that Pope Francis defies expectations and can’t be categorized easily. He reminds us that people are more complicated than we at first imagine. He reminds us to look more carefully, more respectfully at one another, to search out these depths. I appreciate not only that Pope Francis challenges both “sides” of the Church, but that he challenges the very idea that the Church has “sides” at all.
The surprising choice of Pope Francis is not a win for one part of the Church, but already a victory for the Universal Church. As we reexamine where the Church is headed, we must not only look to Church leaders, but those of us in the pews must reexamine our own role in it as well.
Reminder of the Body of Christ
A friend of mine was present in St. Peter’s Square when the white smoke was spotted. He wrote to me to say that at that moment he began to pray that the right candidate had been chosen (and even threw in a few names he hoped weren’t). But as he waited in the crowd, his prayer gradually grew, first into a desire for openness to the new pope, whoever he might be, and then into a desire for true excitement when the name was announced. Finally, in that moment when Pope Francis stepped onto the balcony, my friend was surprised to feel his prayer was answered.
That moment also marked another surprise: the new pope’s decision to begin his papacy by asking for a blessing from the people in the square. In this simple, humble act, he asked for immediate action from the faithful at a time when many expected to be passive observers. In that moment he reminded those present of their shared priesthood as members of the Body of Christ. He reminded all of us of the importance of listening — not only to a God who can bring unexpected moments of quiet reflection to a noisy, boisterous crowd — but to each other in times of need. He reminded us that we must always be ready to listen and to respond to unexpected calls.
Even now, long after the announcement, I am surprised by how quickly I felt at ease with the Pope Francis I have seen, despite the fact that I have only just begun to learn more about him. And even now, he continues to surprise us: offering a silent blessing to the media “respecting the conscience of each one” present; choosing to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at an Italian youth prison; making a personal call to cancel his newspaper delivery in Buenos Aires.
The choice of the name Francis offers many Catholics a delightful level of familiarity in the midst of so much uncertainty. Not only did he choose a name millions of Catholics already invoke in prayer, but the simple fact that he is the first means that his name is not followed by a Roman numeral. It allows the feeling of being on a first-name basis with the Holy Father; his name seems less imposing and, therefore, his person more inviting.
The Catholic Church is often seen as a Church of tradition, a slow-moving entity made up of a long line of saints and sinners. There is comfort in that sense of our Church as a rock, unmoving, powerful. And yet this recent papal election proves that our Church also can be one of surprises. This, itself, really should not be a surprise, especially as we approach the Easter season: It is hard to believe that anyone has ever been as shocked as the women who discovered Christ’s empty tomb. This papal election reminds all of us to be open to the God of surprises. It reminds us to listen, to be humble, to allow grace to work within us, and to trust that the Holy Spirit works within the Church, even — and, perhaps especially — during moments when we least expect it.