* * *
This book is the story of two journeys.
On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world when he announced that he was resigning the papacy and that the College of Cardinals would gather in Rome to elect his successor. From 8:oo p.m. on the evening of February 28, when the resignation took effect, the Church was without a shepherd. Over the next weeks, the Church traveled a path through the sede vacante, a time of suspense and also of mourning, for although Benedict had not died, the end of his pontificate was poignant.
Halfway across the world, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, prepared for his journey to Rome and the conclave. He bought a return ticket, and his friends, aghast at the state of his battered old shoes, implored him to accept the gift of a new pair. Wearing his new shoes, he set out for the Vatican.
Two journeys — one for the whole Church and another for one of her members — ended in the chapel filled with the frescoes of Michelangelo, beneath the gaze of the “Last Judgment.”
On March 13, the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Bergoglio to serve as the 265th Successor of Peter. He took the name Francis. The resignation of Pope Benedict was one of the most astonishing events in modern Church history. Papal resignations are exceedingly rare in the unbroken line of popes — the last took place in 1415. And though it seemed that Pope Benedict’s departure could open the possibility of severe crisis, the Church was prepared both by her laws and traditions to provide stability and continuity even at a moment like this. The result was the election of someone who was unanticipated but who showed immediately that he was prepared to assume the weight of the papacy, to wear the Fisherman’s Ring and the pallium, and to take upon himself the enormity of the Petrine ministry, which Blessed John Paul II called “the service proper to the Bishop of Rome.”
In some ways, this book began not with the resignation of Pope Benedict but eight years earlier with his election. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the clear favorite heading into that conclave, but the other serious candidate to emerge from among the cardinals was Jorge Mario Bergoglio. In the years after, he continued to shepherd his archdiocese with pastoral zeal, a respected leader in the Church in Latin America and within the College of Cardinals. While he did not appear on the radar of most of the media in the discussions of the so-called papabili following Benedict’s announcement, he emerged as God’s choice from his fellow cardinals.
This book covers the momentous events surrounding Pope Benedict’s decision and the conclave that elected Cardinal Bergoglio, but is taken up principally with the life of Pope Francis. It includes a detailed biography of the new pope’s early life, his priesthood as a Jesuit during a dark time in Argentina’s history, his labors as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and finally his time as one of the most influential cardinals in Latin America and beyond. A final chapter examines the crises and opportunities that await the new pontiff and offers an analysis of what his response to those situations might be.
Pope Francis is a pontiff of many firsts, as this book makes clear. A thoroughly unforeseen pope, he has settled into the unimaginably complex and heavy role as Saint Peter’s successor with an ease that many find just as surprising. He has established several key watchwords in the early days of his ministry: mercy, humility, service, authenticity. He has made gestures, large and small, that have already begun pointing to his vision for the papacy and the Church, but his greatest gesture was the first. He chose the name Francis in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, and he did so with a deep understanding of the two most lasting legacies of il Poverello — a love for the poor and a commitment to reform.
Like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis wants the Church to be poor in spirit, to be humble and Christ-like in her prophetic service to the weak, the vulnerable, the forgotten, and the defenseless. But Francis of Assisi was also a reformer, one of the most significant in Church history. With other reformers of his time, such as Saint Dominic, he helped the Church recapture her apostolic zeal and be purified so that all Catholics could proclaim with joy that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Pope Francis’s choice of name met with thunderous approval from the cardinals — and not just the three Franciscans in the conclave. They all understood the significance — Pope Francis will be a reformer but, in the tradition of il Poverello, that reform will be grounded in a spiritual renewal characterized by humility and mercy and intent on leading humanity to an encounter with Christ.
Francis is well aware of the obstacles to that encounter for both the rich and the poor. He lamented in an interview with EWTN in 2012 that people in developed countries worry more about their dogs than their children and spend untold amounts of money on cosmetics. More important, he argued, is the beauty of the Spirit, the beauty of the heart: “That has nothing to do with the artificial beauty of cosmetics. We wear a costume when we don’t have the beauty of God.”
Finding Christ in such a world is daunting. But his most vivid experiences have come in the worst slums of Argentina, where he has said Mass, baptized malnourished children, and washed and kissed the feet of drug addicts and AIDS victims. For them, sheer survival is paramount and daily existence is filled with pressing and searing distractions. An encounter with Christ seems just as remote for the poor as for the most self-absorbed sophisticate in the world’s great cities.
As pontiff, Francis stands now truly as the bridge builder. His origins, his learning, and his own years of service as a pastor over a city that has some of the wealthiest residents in South America and some of the poorest has prepared him for this role. He was a shepherd to them all, and he labored to help everyone in his care encounter Christ. And now he will work to do the same for the world.
We see in the election of Pope Francis the loving and merciful hand of God’s providence. As he told the reporters who had been covering the memorable events unfolding in Rome: “In everything that has occurred, the principal agent has been, in the final analysis, the Holy Spirit. He prompted the decision of Benedict XVI for the good of the Church; he guided the cardinals in prayer and in the election.”
* * *
Reprinted with permission from Our Sunday Visitor.
--- --- ---
On the Net: