Pope Francis, who celebrates his inaugural mass in the midst of pomp and pagentry Tuesday, March 19, is making history, as he assumes leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers throughout the world. It is the first time in more than 600 years that a new pope has been named while his predecessor is still alive. The former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbiship of Buenos Aires, was elected by the College of Cardinals just last Friday.
There is an old expression in a least a couple of cultures which has at times been called both a curse and a blessing: "May you live in interesting times."
It certainly seems appropriate for today's events.
Record crowds are expected at St. Peter's Square, and live news broadcasts will cover all the proceedings. Representatives from the nations of the world, including the United States delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden, will witness the mass. The mass itself will be celebrated beginning at 8:45 a.m. Rome time, or the middle of the night in most of the United States.
With the resignation last month of then Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church faced an occurrence which had happened only once before in its history. With the election five days ago of a new pope in near record time, several other firsts were entered into the record-books, for those who keep track of such things. In his initial public remarks the evening of his election, it has been noted that the new pontiff referred to himself simply as "the bishop of Rome," and appeared in simple white robes and his familiar wooden cross.
Pope Francis became the first Latin American pope, the only non-European pope in centuries, the first Jesuit pope, and the first to take the name "Francis," after St. Francis of Assisi. By all accounts, he is a humble man, dedicated to the poor and the needy; he is conservative and, reportedly, has strong opinions regarding the role of the church in society. He takes the reins of the church as a traditionalist at a time when many within and outside of its ranks are calling for reform and modernization of its teachings.
The mass itself incorporates a number of traditional and prescribed elements, but in some ways, reportedly, it will depart from tradition. The homily will be given in Italian, and is likely to "contain improvisations away from the prepared text." In total, about 180 clerics will "concelebrate" the mass with the new pope, including all the cardinals remaining in Rome.
In other ways, however, the mass is steeped in tradition, beginning with the procession into St. Peter's Basilica, and the descent to the Confession under the high altar; and continuing with, among other highlights, the presentation to Pope Francis of the gold and silver symbolic "fisherman's ring."
Also present to witness the ceremony and take part in the celebratory mass will be the major Eastern Patriarchs and Bishops. According to Deacon Greg Kandra of Brooklyn, New York, the Eastern and Western churches have been divided and often hostile to each other since 1054. There has not "been a patriarch of Constantinople at a pope's inauguration or a pope at a patriarch of Constantinople's installation for well over a thousand years," he notes.
As he settles in to his new apartments at the Vatican, it is certain that the priest from Buenos Aires, who was knows for living alone in spartan surroundings and cooking his own meals, will face major changes in his own lifestyle. The Vatican is, after all, the world's largest "palace," and Pope Francis is now a major presence on the world scene. He may still be a humble man at heart, and he may eschew the trappings of power in his private life, but he will now live that life on a world stage.
On this special day, we thought it might be interesting to take a short tour around the Vatican, in honor of this special event in history.