“Mamma mia!” cried Sister Walburga, a polyglot nun from Germany as lights went on in the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Habemus Papam.” People massed in the piazza cheered as the new Pontiff, clad in simple white cassock, stepped forward. “Buona serra,” he began. “Good evening…”
“The Buenos Aires-born son of a railway worker from Turin seemed almost as dazed as everyone else,” the United Kingdom’s Guardian reported. “Sister Walburga did not know who he was.”
Even in communist Cuba, church bells rang out for the election of the Argentine cardinal as the first Latin American Pope. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, is a Jesuit. “We’ve waited 20 centuries,” Fr. Jose Antonio Cruz in Puerto Rico told the Economist. “It was worth the wait.”
By choosing the first pope from the New World, the cardinals sent a strong message of change, the New York Times noted. “The Church’s future lies in the global south, and a scholar with a common touch may be its best choice to inspire the faithful…”
The bookies, meanwhile, were burned. Early this month, oddsmaker Paddy Power put America’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan at 33-1 and Africa’s Cardinal Peter Turkson at 2-1. After the Sistine Chapel doors closed, the oddsmakers tagged Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola as front-runner, the Times’ David Leonhard wrote. The second-tier favorites included Dolan of the United States and Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil. “Cardinal Luis Tagle, of the Philippines, was sixth.” The Argentinean didn’t even register on the betting screen.
Rewind to 2005. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the pick and “bookies looked prescient.” Yet, 35 years earlier, they, and “by extension, the wisdom of crowds,” did poorly. Cardinal Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who became John Paul II, wasn’t among the favorites.
Over the last 2,000 years, many popes picked the name John. Three pontiffs chose Pius in the past century. He chose the name Francis, after two days of conclave meetings and five voting sessions. In the 13th century, cardinals could not decide for over two years. A lockup and a diet of bread and water hastened the vote.
Pope Francis “is a man who transmits great serenity,” Buenos Aires housewife Ana Maria Perez said of her paesan. She foresees he “is going to be the Pope of the streets.”
Then Cardinal Bergoglio didn’t live in the archbishop’s palace. Instead, he lodged in a small room within a downtown Buenos Aires home. He parked the diocese’s limousine. Instead, he rode the bus to work or when visiting Argentine slums. He scrubbed pots and pans, after cooking his own meals. Argentineans recall how, on Holy Thursday 2001, he visited AIDS patients in a hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of 12 patients. He flogged priests who’d refuse baptism to children of single mothers.
Did the new Pope mean St. Francis Xavier? This 16th-century Jesuit’s missionary zeal took him through much of Asia. Or was he referring to St. Francis of Assisi, who gave away a vast inheritance?
Francis crafted an uncluttered lifestyle that “catalyzed the ‘Renaissance,’ which is older than many European states,” recalls George Will in his column “Memories of a Wandering Fire.” Faith “is not made more credible by arranging its institutional furniture,” this 43-year-old friar taught. His example led thousands to adopt evangelical poverty.
He was a “wandering fire,” writer G.K. Chesterton marveled. Then and now, we seek “wandering fires”: men and women whose values “endure even after the sun goes out.” Or do harsh times only rediscover them?
“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” then Cardinal Bergoglio told Latin American bishops in 2007. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
That’d resonate in the Philippines of 2013. Here, one of four pregnant women is at risk because of chronic hunger and inadequate services, a Department of Health and National Institute of Health development workshop reports. Deficits in folic acid, iron, and Vitamin A result in high deaths among infants 28 days after birth. “There has been no change in the past 15 years.”
A “1,000-day window of vulnerability” traps pregnant women and infants: This is 280 days from conception to two years of birth.” But decisive intervention, by local government officials, can convert this death trap into a “window of opportunity.”
Local governments in barangays, towns and cities “have the power and resources to save many pregnant mothers from preventable disability and death,” nutritionist Florentino Solon writes. After elections, local executives should ensure that vulnerability transposes into opportunity.
Church One (or the institutional Church) is covered by the media. Coverage “concentrates on a Vatican City smaller than some Wal-Marts,” writes Loyola University emeritus professor of psychology Eugene Cullen Kennedy. A papal interregnum and election are manna for the media’s insatiable appetite.
Church Two is “the faithful”—that is, the millions of everyday lay Catholics who live their faith. “This is the real Church for whose members faith is the touchstone of their lives. The drama acted out at every papal election is not really relevant to their everyday lives,” Kennedy says.
“The Church remains the home of well-known sinners and unsung saints and is run more by sinners like them than by saints,” he adds. That mixed smoke wafting from the Sistine chimney “is the perfect symbol of the Church as it is: not quite as pure as it ought to be but human enough to make it a home for the everyday Catholics.”