"White smoke!" people began excitingly posting online around 1:00 p.m. CST. Wednesday was only the second day of the 2013 papal conclave, and I didn't expect to be reporting on the election of a new Pope so soon. The election of a new Pope means that this particular period of "Sede vacante" (when no Pope is reigning) is the shortest in over a century, lasting just 12 days (March 1 - March 13, 2003)
Unlike past conclaves where there confusion about whether a Pope had been elected (and an awkward first appearance by the new Pontiff), things went very smoothly in the 2013 conclave. The black smoke from Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning was clearly black, the white smoke signaling the election of a new Pope later on Wednesday (around 7:00 p.m. in Rome, while 1:00 p.m. in Chicago) was clearly white. The new Pope appeared on the balcony about an hour later, as the world got the first glimpse of the 265th successor to St. Peter.
When the announcement was read out loud in Latin, some wondered if Chicago's own Cardinal Francis George had been elected! The few words that non-Latin speakers could make out from the announcement were "Francis" and "Jorge". As it turned out, Jorge Bergoglio, a 76 year old Cardinal from Argentina, was elected and took the name "Pope Francis". And there he stood in St. Peter's Basilica before a crowd of thousands of cheering onlookers.
Seeing it all live in HD was really the first time I got a sense of how overwhelmed Pope Francis must be feeling, a sense I didn't get when I saw my first papal election in 2005 and Pope John Paul II's longtime right hand man, Cardinal Ratzinger, had been elected as expected and calmly stood there smiling. I now understand how Pope Pius XII the felt when he saw himself in the mirror wearing the Pope's white robes for the first time. Tears rolled down his eyes as he cried out to a housekeeper "Look what they've done to me!"
The biggest shocker was that Cardinal Bergoglio wasn't on anyone's short list. I briefly read a bio of him on the internet a few days earlier, when I was researching the 2005 conclave. According to Cardinals who discussed the conclave anonymously , Cardinal Bergoglio had received the second highest share of votes in 2005 and was actually the runner up to Pope Benedict XVI. In spite of this, he considered a very unlikely choice for 2013, mainly because everyone assumed the Cardinals would choose a much younger man after having to replace a 83 year old in 2005 and a 85 year old in 2013. Most media reports said that "Vatican insiders" and "Roman curia" weren't looking at Bergoglio at all. So much for accuracy in the media!
The new Pope is a fascinating blend of groundbreaking new experiences for the papacy and time-honored, timeless papal traditions.
Pope Francis physically resembles many old school pre-Vatican II popes: a bespectacled older man in his seventies, of Italian heritage. That's because he comes from a family of Italian immigrants -- his father was Mario Bergoglio, a railway worker, and his mother was Regina Sívori, a housewife. He is an extremely humble person who refused to live in the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires that his predecessors lived in; preferring to live in a simple apartment with one bed and heated by a small stove. He cooked all his own meals. He also refused a chauffeur when he was Cardinal, thinking it too worldly, and rode the bus from his apartment to the cathedral.
He is also a staunch social conservative in the mold of his predecessors, calling abortion a “death sentence” for the unborn in 2007. When past Popes said it was up to local bishops to determine whether it was appropriate for pro-abortion politicians to receive holy communion, Cardinal Bergoglio came down firmly in the "no " camp, and urged priests and bishops not to give Communion to politicians, government officials, and health care professionals who support abortion. He is also anti-euthanasia, writing "Today...elderly people are discarded when, in reality, they are the seat of wisdom of the society. The right to life means allowing people to live and not killing, allowing them to grow, to eat, to be educated, to be healed, and to be permitted to die with dignity.” He is likewise an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage, saying “Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” When he argued that gay adoptions discriminate against children, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez compared his tone to "medieval times and the Inquisition." He is reportedly close to Comunione e Liberazione, a a conservative Catholic association of the faithful.
At the same time, by choosing Bergoglio, the Cardinals selected a man that brought back many qualities in the papacy that hadn't been seen in centuries, or in some cases, never seen before. Pope Francis is the first Pope in history to come from the western hemisphere, as well as the first Pope from South America. He is also the first non-European pope since the Syrian-born Pope Gregory III, who died in 741. He is a Vatican outsider, which hasn't been seen since John Paul II, then a Polish Cardinal, was elected in 1978. He comes from the Jesuit religious order and is the first Jesuit in history to become Pope. By picking the unique papal name of "Francis", he is the first Pope since Pope Lando (913-14) to choose a new papal name instead of taking the name of one of his predecessors. (Pope John Paul I's name was new, but he created it by combining the name of his two immediate predecessors: Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI) Pope Francis' native language is Spanish, something not seen since the election of Pope Alexander VI of Spain the 1400s. (Pope Francis is also fluent in Italian and German) Another interesting side note: the Pope only has one lung, since the other lung was removed due to infection he had as a teenager.
Although he staunchly rejects liberation theology, Pope Francis is nevertheless a strong proponent of "social justice". How he will interpret that is anyone's guess as it means different things depending on the country and the context (is anyone for "social injustice"?) but many are hopefully it means being more pro-active in thoroughly rooting out and cleansing the Catholic Church of sexual deviants and modernized outreach to the poor and needy. He is the first Pope that was created a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II himself, as John Paul II elevated him to the college of Cardinals in 2001. Some of my Byzantine Catholic friends were hoping the next Pope would be a Pope from an eastern-rite Catholic Church (which hasn't happened since the 700s). It was always an extremely remote possibility since there only four Cardinals in the 2013 conclave who came from an eastern-rite Church. But Pope Francis is the closet thing we've had to an eastern Catholic Pope in a while. He was the Vatican's Ordinary of the Ordinariate for the Faithful of the Eastern Rites from 1998–2013, which basically means he was responsible for overseeing all Eastern Catholics parishes that lacked their own prelate. He is thus familiar with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, and may have celebrated Orthodox-style liturgies in the past, something most Roman Catholics are wholly unfamiliar with.
In any case, this upset in the 2013 conclave means the pontificate of Francis is still largely shrouded in mystery. He has promised Catholics "we'll meet again very soon", and his formal inauguration as Pope will be on St. Joseph's Day (March 19). Liberal Catholics and the secular media hoping the next Pope would "get with the times" by allowing abortion, same-sex marriage, female priests, etc. are sorely mistaken, and appear shocked and aghast at the fact that Pope Francis is a Catholic and a faithful one. They should get used to it. Instead of demanding the Catholic Church change its beliefs to suit theirs, my advice for liberal Catholics is they should consider simply joining another Christian church that has the same "values" as they do. Those that do believe in and support Catholic teachings will find a lot to like about Pope Francis, and the fact he is fluent in Spanish and comes from the "new world" gives him a strong link to many of the Catholic faithful in the Chicago area.
The world and United States is facing deeply troubling times and it seems there's more bad news every day, but the election of Pope Francis does give us hope for the future of the Catholic Church. The new Pope is already best known for his known for his humility, doctrinal conservatism, and staunch defense of the Church's moral theology. As for his own thoughts on being elected Pope, he could only offer: “the duty of the cardinals is to elect a Bishop of Rome... and they’ve gone to the end of the world to find one!”