We had been orphans for more than two weeks, and the mood on that cool April evening in the heart of the Eternal City reflected the joy of a world that again had its father. It was a joy like a half-whispered possibility that grew into a gathering storm which burst at the news that the smoke really was white. Habemus Papem
! Those words were repeated often that night: Habemus Papem
! We have a Father again!
Traffic in Rome is never what you might call a fluid affair, but on that occasion the entire city instantaneously became a traffic jam of epic proportions. So everyone began to run. The cramped streets were flooded with running Romans — nuns in their habits, businessmen in wool suits, mothers with baby carriages — all trying to reach St Peter’s square before the police sealed it off.
I was fortunate enough to get in to the square just before the local police – already schooled in handling massive crowds by the events surrounding John Paul II’s death – managed to erect the barriers; and there, in the ancient heart of Christianity, I had a powerful sensation of novelty.
Now this sensation certainly wasn’t due to ideal external factors: there was no soft wind or gold-tinted sky to turn your mind toward spiritual matters. On the contrary, “stifling” is the only word I can find to describe St Peter’s square that night. The effects of having more than a hundred thousand people crammed into a determined space surrounded by high buildings are easily imagined. But none of that mattered. There was an electricity unlike anything I’d ever experienced or even imagined, an atmosphere that I can only relate to the word “resurrection”. And when Pope Benedict XVI appeared on the basilica’s balcony the crowd’s euphoric reaction made this sensation a conviction: something is present here, something vibrant and alive.
The April anniversary of Pope Benedict’s election afforded the opportunity to reflect a bit more about this remarkable event, and all its accompanying manifestations. And naturally the most obvious question was: why?
Why the enormous crowds that demolished all demographic divisions? Why the human river which inundated St Peter’s with a breathless air of expectation? Why the tremendous reaction – both in the square and in all parts of the globe – when a quiet scholarly man of 78 years emerged to bless the world?
To answer these questions it might help to recall a phrase from the Holy Father’s letter for the World Vocations Day which the Church celebrated on May 7. He makes an interesting and perhaps unexpected observation: it’s possible to lose our sense of wonder in the modern world. It’s really not strange that in the midst of limitless diversion we could speak of losing our sense of wonder – it would be like losing your sense of smell in a landfill or going blind by staring too long at the sun. We may have become so saturated with surprise that hardly anything strikes us as amazing anymore.
But it seems we can’t desist from wanting to wonder. It’s impossible for us to simply resign ourselves to a dull existence: at the very least we want to believe we’ve found something new and revolutionary. This is one of the prime reasons that it’s possible to earn the equivalent of the GNP of some developing countries just by writing a book that falsely promises to turn history upside down.
Take, for instance, the interest that the “Gospel of Judas” stirred up with its promise of intrigue and revelation resurrected from the desert wastes. In point of fact it doesn’t tell us something we didn’t already know – namely that the Catholic Church has always had to combat bizarre ideas – but the promise of novelty really does appeal to us.
If someone were to write an exposé about the secret ties between the ancient Aztec sun god cult and the modern U.S. immigration policy debates it would probably become a best-seller - only to be dethroned by another work explaining that the NBA is actually a continuation of that esoteric and recently discovered sect known as the “Dunkers”.
However, one thing really is always new, even when it doesn’t seem to top the charts. Two thousand years ago God became man in a small and forgotten land. He lived for us, and he died nailed to a cross for us. But the story didn’t end there: he also rose from the dead and made it possible for us to live forever with him in heaven. This God become Man also founded a Church, built on the rock of St Peter.
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is named after this same St Peter, who was martyred on the spot where the church now stands. The man who now lives next door is the successor of St Peter, the first Pope, and as such stands in for Christ as the earthly head of the Church. Does this all sound familiar? It probably does, but the reaction of Rome and of the world to the white smoke which announced that we had a new father, a new Pope, demonstrated that this will never grow old. We might often take the Catholic Church for granted - but it is always young and full of fresh surprises.
The Church is alive, and the Church is young. This is startling in a way that no exposé or thriller can ever hope to rival. The world has not lost its thirst for what is new, but what it really seeks is a novelty that won’t wither away in a day or a week or even a lifetime. Christ is this novelty: and though he died he has risen, and the wonder of his resurrection fills the whole earth. This wonder is alive in His Church, which is old and yet young with the youth of Easter. And so we ran to St Peter’s. We ran because we had a father again; we ran because the Church is young and strong; we ran because of an amazement that will never grow old.
Brother John Pietropaoli, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.