Day Nine: A Spirit That Surprises

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.