The Catholic Thing
Day Nine: A Spirit That Surprises Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 14 March 2013

After a week of speculating, of poring over news reports, of thinking that we pretty much had – by dint of our conscientious labors – gotten clear about what kind of qualifications a small handful of cardinals had that a future pope would need to meet the challenges facing the Church, and of predicting that the decision would come, at the earliest, late in the week, the announcement Wednesday evening came like a thunderbolt.

Man proposes, God disposes.

I predicted an early end to the conclave. It seemed to me all along that, contrary to reports of confusion and no clear front-runner, the cardinals had actually had an unusually long time to prepare for this choice because of the unique circumstances surrounding Benedict XVI’s resignation. But no one, not even the sanguine Cardinal Dolan, believed it could all end this fast. And let no one tell you that he knew it would be Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who came out dressed in white on that balcony tonight.  

Since this is a daily news report about the conclave, I’m going to resist the temptation to try to put together an instant analysis of someone almost entirely unanticipated – though hardly unknown. He almost edged out Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, but some thought that possibly a handicap, since he wasn’t able to win when he was eight years younger. There are good longer commentaries about the new pope here and here. And you will easily find others in your local papers and on the Internet.

I will return at a future date with more considered thoughts about the whole process I witnessed this week, as well as about the path the new pope is likely to take. But for tonight, in Rome, there’s a broad spirit of sheer celebration.

His chosen name may already tell us much: Pope Francis, the first of that name – intended to evoke both Francis, the poor man of Assisi, as well as St. Francis Xavier, one of the early companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Our first Jesuit pope found an elegant way to connect his own religious order with the way he has conspicuously practiced evangelical poverty and charity in Buenos Aires.

God be with him, as he asked us to pray, immediately at his first appearance, even before he prayed for those of us assembled in St. Peter’s Square. It’s been said by some that he lacks a sense of humor, but his very first words were: “You all know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him.” (The rest, which was much more magnetic in person than you can tell from the text, is here.)

I heard the news, actually saw the white smoke on the television in the lobby of my hotel, a few blocks from the Vatican. The hotel staff immediately shouted that it must be the americano. I told them that was impossible. I was convinced it was the italiano Scola, since no other candidate could possibly have succeeded after so short a time. Did I already say that man proposes, God disposes?

I grabbed my umbrella and rushed over to St. Peter’s with thousands of others to wait for the announcement of the name. The weather was miserable as it has been all week, but the rain started to let up just before the announcement was made – and a good thing, too. It would have been impossible to see anything otherwise. As it was, it was hard to look through the forest of arms raised to take pictures.  It looked like this from the base of the obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square.

Anyone who tells you Catholicism is dead in Italy must reckon with the following fact. A man standing next to me, an ordinary elderly gentleman, made the Biblical connection and starts saying, “Look at this one, he thinks he’s Moses holding his arms up like this, Hey you, even Moses let his arms go down now and then!” In case you don’t get the reference, it’s from Exodus 17:12, where because of a divine command the Israelites have to prop up Moses arms all day so that Joshua could be guaranteed to defeat the army of Amalek.

As has happened several times, when the cardinal read out the name of the new pope, about half of us couldn’t tell what he said. The other half was instantly electrified. Bergoglio is of Italian background, the family emigrated from Asti in the Piedmont to Argentina in the 1920s. So he clicked with the Italian and Latin American crowd right away. Italians also noted how even in the few words he offered that he spoke a lot about the city of Rome, which may reflect an intention to emphasize being bishop of Rome.

Nothing wrong with that and a lot that’s quite right, since he is bishop of Rome. We’ve already been hearing the stories of how even as a cardinal he lived in a humble home in Buenos Aires, rode the bus to work, cooked for himself. And all this is no affectation. Some of the better informed Latino reporters say that he has sought to serve the poor directly, but also labored to turn Latin American liberation theology away from the dead ends of Marxist and socialist perspectives, which don’t help the poor.

In a similar way, he’s taken what seem to many a tough “conservative” stand against gay adoption, while personally attending to AIDS patients. These combinations break many of the molds that people routinely – and superficially – use to judge Church leaders, as if everything in a religious institution with 1.2 billion members on every continent should be quite easy to sort into familiar categories, instead of bringing us something entirely different from the realm of the spirit.

We may just have witnessed such a unique deliverance tonight.

Let me confess my own hubris in this context. Not only did I not see Francis as a serious candidate. Now that he’s been elected, even after reading over much of what’s been written about him, it would be further presumption to predict what his papacy will be like, or what the cardinal electors were thinking. We’ll know more of that in the coming days, to be sure. But get ready for further surprises.

It seemed clear before – and still does now – that the cardinals were not looking for someone primarily focused on further intellectual developments. We’ve got a lot of documents of many kinds from the past two papacies in social thought and dogmatic fields – wonderful work that needs to find its way more into daily Catholic life than into further debate in academic settings.

There was a lot of talk about a charismatic holy figure before the conclave began. And a lot more talk of the need for a reformer to refashion the curia. Pious and tough sound like opposites, but what if you get the former cardinal archbishop of a major archdiocese who has been a reformer by displaying holiness?

It sort of reminds you of that well known story about another Francis, who was himself surprised to hear God tell him, “Francis, rebuild my Church.”

[Note: This column may also be read in French here.]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Grump, March 14, 2013
Safe choice but the honeymoon with the secular media won't last long before the long knives come out. No doubt Joe Biden and the liberal nuns will be pushing publicly again for gay marriage, abortion, birth control and women's ordination.

As a dog lover, I especially like the link to Francis.
written by DS, March 14, 2013
God is indeed full of surprises. Francis' election also makes no worldly sense in one other way: he is 76 and apparently has only one fully functional lung.

After seeing Francis appear for the first time yesterday, I was struck by his humility. He did not wear a red mozzetta like his predecessors (don't know if that was intentional), wore his own simple episcopal cross, and he asked the crowd to bless and pray for him. His gentle smile and reserved manner reminded me of my late grandfather. And today, he apparently personally checked out of the conclave residence for Cardinals and insisted on paying his bill.

Viva il Papa!
written by Peter John, March 14, 2013
Thank you, Robert, for your measured and faithful response to the news of our new Pope. I heard the news from the owner of a restaurant as I was beginning to do a software demonstration. She greeted me with, "We have a new Pope, and he is a liberal." Her excitement was genuine. She had no idea whether I was a Catholic or not. I asked where she had heard the news and was told NBC News. I am so glad we have Catholic news sources and thinkers like Robert Royal who can counter the virtual pope which many secular news agencies have already begun to create. Of course Benedict,our Bishop Emeritus, had already prepared us for this with his reference to the virtual council created by the secular press fifty years ago. Robert, thank you for your contribution in your love for the truth.
written by Louise, March 14, 2013
Robert, I too was struck by the fact that his words were addressed to his diocese of Rome. I've been thinking about that ever since and it occurs to me that perhaps that will be the key to his papacy...he will lead the other bishops of the world by his example of being a bishop of his diocese, Rome. As he said, "My hope is that this journey of the Church that we begin today, together with help of my Cardinal Vicar, be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city."

DS mentions that he asked the people to bless him...actually he was asking the people to pray that God would bless him, an important distinction. This is the transcript:
"And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favour. Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer – your prayer for me – in silence."
written by DeGaulle, March 14, 2013
May God bless Pope Francis. I find it intriguing that he is emphasising the Bishopric of Rome. Let us hope he doesn't overdo it, lest he begin to fulfil the prophesy of St. Malachy (Peter the Roman)!
written by Frank, March 15, 2013
I don't see Pope Francis as a conservative OR liberal. I do see him as one who has been down in the trenches with his sleeves rolled up doing the grunt work many of us (including myself) talk about but rarely act upon. The times and the message are changing and perhaps with this election, the Holy Spirit is telling all of us that it is time to quit talking and start doing and forget about what the rest of the world is going to say.

Gump, I've got to disagree. Pope Francis never had a honeymoon with the press and never will. The Pharisees and Sadducees of our time loathe the Church and Pope Francis. No sooner than he was elected that the major networks reported his positions on gay marriage, abortion, etc etc with a tint and tone of solicitous sarcasm...they just know not what they do.

And in spite of the fact that the Jesuit Community has in the balance, taken a "left turn" in these times, Pope Francis it credibly appears, has stayed the course. If some of his views do swing liberal, I'll trust that it is because he's been down in those trenches many of us avoid. Of one thing I am certain, our new Holy Father will speak plainly but quietly to the maddening loud shrill of secular power with a measured tone and intellectual heft endowed by the Holy Spirit. It may take some time but for now, I am confident the tide has turned or as Churchill aptly put it, "This is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning!"
written by CB, March 15, 2013
I've enjoyed the neat and cogent postings from both Bob & Sandro Magister during and after the Conclave. I also appreciate Bob's humility in admitting that Card. Bergoglio was not on many of the papabile lists. Like the election of JP II, this is one more sign that the Holy Spirit is bigger than our movements. It also reminds that also like JP II, the Spirit has taken the Church to another part of the world that knows both suffering and strength.

One personal reflection: There is much talk about "reform". Perhaps it is helpful to remember that in the past, reform in the Church usually meant not a slackening, but a cleansing that brought with it some tightening.

Oremus pro invicem.
written by William Callaghan, March 18, 2013
Dear Robert,

enjoyed your work on EWTN these past few weeks, you have all done a great job, can only see positive things happening with Pope Francis.

God bless you.
written by William Callaghan, March 18, 2013
Dear Robert,

Enjoyed your insights on EWTN these past few weeks, all of you have done a wonderful job with the coverage. Looking forward to tomorrow's inaugural Mass, wonder if Pope Francis has any more surprises in store?

God bless Francis and God bless you, keep up the good work

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