Thursday, March 13, 2014

"White Smoke! White Smoke!"

My office on March 13, 2013
It was hard to work.  On my computer screen was a live video feed of a chimney, and I kept glancing up from my book looking for smoke.  For no reason at all I felt like we'd see a pope elected in the afternoon, though no one else I knew thought the same.  One of my former undergraduate students, Benjamin Siegel, was on spring break from law school and was in the Bellarmine University library studying.  I sent him a text at around 1:30 suggesting that he might want to pop by my office soon to watch for smoke together.  Two of my M.A. in Spirituality students, Carrie Meyer McGrath and Adam Quine (side note: take a look at their blogs), let me know that they were also on their way, though Carrie didn't think a pope would be elected today.

Benjamin and I watched the chimney and chatted; at 2:06 the first whiffs of smoke appeared.  The smoke looked black at first, but after a second or two white smoke started to billow out of the chimney.  I quickly sent a message to Carrie and Adam - "White smoke! White smoke!"  Carrie arrived quickly, and Adam came a few minutes after, breathless; the news of white smoke led him to race to campus, park his truck, slide Dukes-of-Hazzard-style across the hood, and run to my office.

Chills still go down my spine when I watch the video and hear the crowd react to the smoke and to the tolling of St. Peter's bells (0:45 and 2:05 of the video below).  There seems to me something very catholic about this event, and I mean this word in the broad sense to mean unifying and universal.  The crowd in St. Peter's Square was culturally diverse as well as theologically diverse, and those of all religious and cultural stripes watched the election from around the world.  In my office were three Roman Catholics and a Presbyterian seminarian.  At this moment I felt that we were all of us unified in anticipation and excitement as we awaited the announcement of the new bishop of Rome who would, regardless of our theological viewpoints, have an impact on our lives.

Along with most of the world, I had little idea who Cardinal Bergolio was.  When Pope Francis came onto the balcony of St. Peter's (1:16:00 of the video) and simply...stood there, he looked awkward to me and I briefly wondered what the church was getting herself into.  Then he spoke:

Brothers and sisters, good evening!
You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop.  It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one... but here we are... I thank you for your welcome.  The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop.  Thank you!  And first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him. 
Our Father...
Hail Mary...
Glory Be...
And now, we take up this journey:  Bishop and People.  This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.  A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.  Let us always pray for one another.  Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity.  It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city. 
And now I would like to give the blessing, but first - first I ask a favour of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop.  Let us make, in silence, this prayer:  your prayer over me. 
Now I will give the Blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will.
Brothers and sisters, I leave you now.  Thank you for your welcome.  Pray for me and until we meet again.  We will see each other soon.  Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome.  Good night and sleep well!

One year later, not all in the church are thrilled with Pope Francis' leadership.  Some are troubled by his popularity, fearful that it sheds a negative light on Francis' predecessor.  I frequently defended Pope Benedict XVI from criticisms I considered unfair, particularly those that stemmed from the misplaced notion that Benedict was an arch-conservative bent on taking the church back to the middle-ages.  Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was and is a tremendous theologian, far more complicated and nuanced of a thinker than his critics gave him credit for, and one of the most intelligent men ever to be bishop of Rome.  But Pope Francis is pastoral in a way Benedict never was, and this, I think, is what the church desperately needs right now.


Translation of Pope Francis' Urbi et Orbi speech is from the Vatican website.
The photo above was taken by Adam Quine.

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