Like the rest of the worldwide Catholic community, I was glued to my television on Wednesday, March 13, as we awaited news from the papal conclave, into its second day of voting. Black smoke emerged early, reflecting TWO ballots, not one. Newscasters observed that this was an indication that the field was narrowing, and that white smoke might emerge at 11:00am (Pacific Time). I was sitting on pins and needles as that hour loomed.
White smoke! “Habemus papam!” I strained my ears as the cardinal MC announced the name of the new pope from that iconic Vatican balcony.
“Francesco! Francesco!” the crowd started echoing back. Was it possible? The new Vicar of Christ would be known as Pope Francis!
Francis of Assisi! The iconic holy man beloved by people of all faiths, and even of no faith, for his simplicity, his love for the poor, and his love for animals. Saint Francis, who renounced his wealthy inheritance and embraced poverty. Saint Francis, who heard the command from God to “rebuild my Church!” Francis would be the name of the new pope!
And then he appeared on the balcony, not dressed in the red papal regalia of his predecessors but in a simple white cassock. He departed from the script and greeted the enthusiastic multitude at St. Peter’s Square with a simple, “Good evening.” He led the people in an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary.” And then, before he blessed the world, he bowed humbly and asked for our prayers.
As I watched this unfold on television, an interesting personal reaction: my eyes welled up in tears. I am not one to cry easily, and here I was, overcome with emotion and, yes, hope. I grew up a child of the Second Vatican Council whose influence, I have observed with increasing dismay, was receding with each passing year. And now, the new pope is a champion of the poor who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, visited the sick, rode to work on a bus with his people, and cooked his own meals.
For me, Vatican II can be summarized in two words: social justice. It’s not about being liberal or conservative. Frankly, who cares about such polemic labels? Vatican II’s legacy is “the fundamental option for the poor.”
The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men [sic] of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well…
-Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
Pundits and bloggers are already pontificating (pardon my irony) on Pope Francis’ record as an archbishop. He is “too conservative” on the hot-flash issues of today’s world. Or he’s “too liberal” when it comes to liturgy and tradition. Oh, come on! The man just got fitted for his white cassock. At least give him a chance to try it on for size.
Pope Francis, or any pope for that matter, is not going to suddenly undo centuries of dogma or the interpretation of it. The Catholic Church is a millennial organization that moves at a glacial pace, in marked contrast to a modern society that is accustomed to instant change and lightning-speed action. Ecclesial change and reform lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Painful as the glacial pace is, today’s generation can begin to lay the groundwork for change that will eventually benefit future generations. After all, Saint Francis could only rebuild that old ruined church brick by brick.
For today, I just want to bask in this rare uplifting moment for the Church. Pope Francis gives me hope. Yes, the road ahead is challenging and will be filled with inevitable setbacks and disappointments. But today, the burden of that long road became a little bit lighter.