Looking Back: The Election of Pope Francis

Pope Francis steps out to the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to greet the people of Rome on the night of his election, March 13, 2013 (CNS)

This is the introduction to the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here

Here’s something you may not hear a Jesuit say very often: I had no clue.

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On March 13, 2013, white smoke suddenly started pouring out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, indicating that a new pope had been elected—and more quickly than most people expected.

A few minutes later I was in a television studio in New York, and it fell to me (as it did to countless other commentators) to explain to at least a part of the English-language television audience who was likely to emerge on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as the new pope, the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

And, frankly, I had no clue. Scola? Ravasi? Another Italian cardinal whose biography I would be expected to know well but probably didn’t?

In truth, few commentators had any idea what to expect; and those who claimed they did have a grasp on what was to come would have to admit that the events of a few weeks prior had amply proven the dangers of prognostication, when an event no one predicted came about: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 28, 2013.

Not since Pope Celestine V voluntarily quit a few months into his pontificate in 1294 had the church seen anything but death bring an end to a pope’s tenure. (That’s assuming, of course, that we count on God to have figured out what happened in 1415, when for a while three men claimed to be pope). Now we had a pope in apparently good health resigning his position “for the good of the church.”

Pope Benedict’s resignation was one of the most powerful examples of humility in all of church history. Imagine voluntarily relinquishing that kind of power. It still stuns me.

As an aside, I thought at the time, and still do, that Pope Benedict’s resignation was one of the most powerful examples of humility in all of church history. Imagine voluntarily relinquishing that kind of power. It still stuns me.

Because Benedict XVI was widely seen as a pope in continuity, at least ecclesiology-wise, with his predecessor John Paul II (later declared a saint) and because the vast majority of cardinal-electors (those cardinals who are eligible to vote in a papal election) were appointed by Benedict or his predecessor, the bulk of them were assumed to be “John Paul II cardinals.”

Many of us thought this would mean they would elect a candidate who would more or less continue the legacies of John Paul and Benedict, as a doctrinal rigorist and perhaps a standard-bearer for the more “conservative” wing of the College of Cardinals. (Nota bene: terms like liberal and conservative mean something quite different in church contexts than in American political discourse. One could argue, for example, that Pope Benedict was far more “conservative” than most U.S. Republicans on sexual morality, but far more “liberal” than most Democrats on issues like climate change and economic policy).

So who would it be? An official of the Roman Curia? A protégé of Benedict XVI himself, like Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec or Christoph Schönborn of Munich? Or even an American like Seán O’Malley of Boston or Timothy Dolan of New York?

A name mentioned eight years earlier in the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy still came up here and there, but his star seemed to have dimmed: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Among his own Latin American brethren in the episcopacy, Bergoglio was known as a staunch advocate for the poor and oppressed.

For one thing, Bergoglio was a Jesuit, and no member of the Society of Jesus had ever been elected pope. In addition, Bergoglio seemed something a cipher to the other cardinals, and to most of the Vaticanistas giving odds on the papal favorites as well. Known as a traditionalist among many of his Jesuit brethren, he nonetheless had been a leading proponent of the somewhat daring “popular theology” in Argentina, and had also made unorthodox moves around interreligious dialogue and church traditions that sometimes puzzled outsiders. Among his own Latin American brethren in the episcopacy, he was known as a staunch advocate for the poor and oppressed. Too much of a wild card, many commentators thought...and besides, no one thought anyone in the College of Cardinals was going to vote for a Jesuit to become pope.

Among not a few Jesuits worldwide there were also some hard feelings about Bergoglio. His stint as regional superior (“the provincial” in Jesuit lingo) had been, according to nearly all Jesuits with whom I spoke, highly divisive. In later accounts, including an interview with America shortly after his election as pope, he would ruefully look back on that time, when as a younger man (he was all of 36 years old when named provincial) he made decisions in an “authoritarian” way. In fact, in the wake of his time as provincial the Jesuits were forced to name a successor from another country—a highly unusual step that underscored the divisiveness experienced in the province during the Bergoglio years. What many of us failed to take into account was that these were the actions of a much younger man, and that Bergoglio had changed.

It was with all that on my mind that I watched the white smoke pour forth that day. Cardinal Scola, I thought, or Schönborn; or maybe Cardinal Ravasi. The cardinal electors will play it safe, pick someone known, someone local. Hoping against hope, I also said a prayer for some of the cardinals I actually knew: Dolan, O’Malley.

My hosts at ABC News quickly seated me with a microphone to narrate the events as the new pope’s name was announced. Soon the heavy curtain was pulled back on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the famous words were intoned:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus Papam!

The crowd roared with joy. I was genuinely excited, with a lump in my throat.

Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae…

The crowd muttered. George Mary? Who was he? I ran through the rather short list of names that I remembered from the College of Cardinals. George Mary who?

I will admit I broke a cardinal rule of broadcasting when I heard what came next—because I gasped into a live microphone when I heard:

Cardinalem Bergoglio. Qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.”

Bergoglio! That Jesuit!

It was three shocks at once, because it was three firsts at once. Then the list of firsts cascaded into my mind, and it was hard to take them all in: The first Jesuit pope. The first pope from the Global South. The first pope to take the holy and distinguished name of Francis.

And frankly, a Jesuit about whom I had heard nothing good! My cell phone immediately started buzzing with messages, “A Jesuit pope!” “Isn’t he a Jesuit?” And from a Jesuit who knew him, “Watch out! You’ll be in cassocks in a year!” (In other words, your new pope is an authoritarian and traditionalist.)

Then I thought, “Wait a minute. He’s taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi? (Or maybe Francis Xavier?) He can’t be all bad!”

The list of firsts cascaded into my mind: The first Jesuit pope. The first pope from the Global South. The first pope to take the holy and distinguished name of Francis.

It seemed as if the new pope knew as well as we all did what a shock his election was. (Perhaps he felt that shock himself.). His first words, translated here into English, were a disarming acknowledgment of his “outsider” status and a recognition of his famous predecessor:

Brothers and sisters, good evening! You know it was the duty of the conclave to give Rome a bishop. And 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.

After a few more words of welcome, Francis gave the first indication that he would be a different sort of pope from what we were all used to:

And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I ask a favor 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 goodwill.

Then he did something that, I admit, moved me to tears: he bowed silently before the vast crowd. Again, I thought, “How bad can he be if he’s doing this?”

That night our Jesuit community in New York City was abuzz. We had a previously scheduled community meeting, so all of us happened to be home. Not surprisingly, we scratched the normal agenda and simply talked about our feelings. Who was he? Did we know him? What did we think? What did it mean to have a Jesuit pope? That last question was the same one a reporter asked me earlier that day. And my answer was the same: “Who knows? There’s never been one!”

We have a pope of surprises, and a pope of surprising mercy.

Five years since, we know. We have a pope of surprises, and a pope of surprising mercy. A pope who says in all honesty to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” A pope who speaks up for the marginalized, insisting that a global church consider the entire globe. A pope who eschews many of the trappings of the papacy for a life of relative austerity. A pope who has little patience for the accretions and pomps of past centuries, who scandalizes Catholics at times with his blunt rejection of false pieties or arbitrary rules. A surprising pope in many ways, one who encourages young people to “make a mess, cause a scene,” one who is not afraid to call out the Pharisees and hypocrites of our day in his preaching and teaching. A thoroughly Jesuit pope: one unafraid of discernment, of encouraging people to use their consciences, of trying something new.

Daily I pray for my brother Jesuit, this former provincial superior, and now my earthly boss, not simply for his continued health and presence among us, but for the church he shepherds, and for the church he calls to new life in new forms with new ways of thinking and being.

Feliz aniversario y que cumpla muchos mas, Pope Francis!

This is the introduction to the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
5 months 3 weeks ago

Oh, such a nice article!...An introduction to a Very Special Fancis Commemorative Issue no less...No pomp here is there?... Madison Avenue would be proud of this commercial (and do not dare question the content)...The next book should be entitled, "The selling of Jesus in 2018" by Francis, with the subtile " How to never judge those with whom you agree and win the hearts of the world through selective love"....Let us all go forth to show our Christian love for anyone on the all important Hot Topics List....I need give certain people credit, winning isn't everything as it's the only thing.

Robert Lewis
5 months 3 weeks ago

Your hatred for our Holy Father shows clearly.

Christopher Lochner
5 months 3 weeks ago

Not hatred nor unchristian, the Body of Christ is supposed to speak out against misguided and self serving leaders. To speak of preferential love of one group over another is not Christian. To ignore the cries of the abused until forced to do so by the media is not Christian. Not hatred at all but Francis is a media savvy charlatan. Beware!

Christopher Lochner
5 months 3 weeks ago

Hate the sins not the sinners. I apologize if I am not clear on this issue.

Douglas Fang
5 months 3 weeks ago

I see absolutely zero, zip Christian love in your comment. Don't make a mockery out of it.

Christopher Lochner
5 months 3 weeks ago

Christian love does not call one to support the Scribes and Pharisees now does it? I should pray for his many errors but I will support neither his earthly power nor his hypocrisy.

Nora Bolcon
5 months 3 weeks ago

Hi Christopher,

You sound like someone who has also been hurt by this church and felt let down by Pope Francis. I get it. I was called to priesthood in my teens and none of the women like me has ever known the love of any recent pope. I am often jealous of my brothers on the altar - what it must feel like to be wanted by our leadership half as much as they are and by the laity too after our leadership coaxes them to be happy with glee they decided to serve us as priests. I do believe he cares genuinely more than the two which came before him but you are right, it almost hurts more to be led on in some ways. I had high hopes for this pope. I still do, to some degree, but those hopes are wilting more and more.

It is our job, the laity, to demand more. So I won't lash out at you as you are not being dishonest in your complaints. Some people only seem to care that this pope was better than the last by some amount. When did our expectations become so low?

Peace Brother - please do not leave as others have done. This battle for a church which truly reflects the Kingdom of God can really only be changed from the inside, or so God has led me to believe. Don't give up on us.

James Haraldson
4 months 3 weeks ago

Neither self worshipers nor women nor women who are also self-worshipers have ever been "called" to the priesthood no matter how tall the Mt. Everest of self-delusion they live on.

Mike Theman
5 months 3 weeks ago

Even writing about the Pope James Martin cannot help but make the article about himself.

Roberto Blum
5 months 3 weeks ago

Great article father Martin. I just want to clear a small mistake. You write: "So who would it be? An official of the Roman Curia? A protégé of Benedict XVI himself, like Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec or Christoph Schönborn of Munich? Or even an American like Seán O’Malley of Boston or Timothy Dolan of New York?"
In fact cardinal Schönborn was and is the archbishop of Vienna, not Munich.

Lisa Weber
5 months 3 weeks ago

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in a church that badly needed it. I am grateful for his papacy.

Nora Bolcon
5 months 3 weeks ago

Many things that I can hail with this writer regarding our beloved Pope Francis. However, the issue he is weakest on and the one I feel is self-destructing our church the most over all other problems is sexism and the unequal and unjust treatment and exclusion of women from Holy Orders. He needs to fix this problem and not with deacons. He needs to ordain a women to priesthood publicly and quickly, this year, and he needs to make women cardinals and quickly, and set the precedent that we no longer discriminate between genders. We can no longer afford keep sacraments away from women who are equally called by God, are equally sacred and worthy in the flesh, and qualified to lead as their brothers. Until he abolishes our rules of misogyny and patriarchy he is an over-all failure as a pope for me. Sexism is directly connected to child abuse, poverty, violence, abortion, terrorism, and so many other horrible global ills. We support those ills as long as we are global representatives of this hatred and bias.

There is one answer to our current weak state and only one. We must repent of our misogyny and harm done to all women in the past, own it for the hatred it is and always has been, and ask as a church for forgiveness from God for the damage that we have done to the Body of Christ while we rectify our ways with action and ordination of women in large numbers to priesthood. We laity and priests must demand this of Pope Francis or we are equally to blame for the injustice and continued harm to our church.

Henry George
5 months 3 weeks ago

Nora,

You are asking for radical change from an institution that has a history of the slowest changes.

Work for Women Deacons.
Work for Married Priests.
Once the Married Priests become Bishops and the laity is used to Women Deacons then
the step to Women Priests will not seem so radical.

Give it about 15 years and you will have what you so seek.

Nora Bolcon
5 months 3 weeks ago

Hi Henry,

That is the lie of misogyny. It is literally how hatred is mechanized against any group of people. Women and men can and must demand change and absolute equality now. Women should not be further debased in their humanity and there is no godly excuse to allow this hatred to continue in any form. The deaconate is a joke with no authority and therefore meaningless. If we ordain married men to priesthood then the deaconate will be a female only, no authority joke, and a complete decoy, of justice, the trap robbing them of justice, while we create the worst form of subjugation in our church's entire history, i.e. gender segregation thru optional priestly celibacy of only male priests. This creates a Church with all men controlling and oppressing all women in our church. What we have now is more just than that suggestion. At least now the vast majority of men are not allowed priesthood or any authority over their wives and other women in the Church. We are already losing more women than men. We are responsible for the lost souls who have not only turned their backs on Catholicism, but on Jesus and his salvation, due to our false teaching of Jesus Christ - the savior, who does not love or free women.

Back when priests could marry, or presbyters, as they were called then, women were also presbyters (or priests - it is not certain whether or not they were ordained. Most of the men were not ordained either in the early church. In fact ordination for presbyters or priests was not mandatory until the 1300s.) This church over night got rid of its support for slavery and can do the same for women by having one pope ordain one woman to priesthood. That ends the hate - one moment, and one act of true Christian decency, is all that is necessary.

We often told black people to earn their humanity over time too. You watch the movie Glory and you see this. First it was ok, you can make a black regiment but they tried not to fund them so they had no uniforms so the leader made a public shame of those who made that decision and they got uniforms. Then our leaders tried to pay these black soldiers less but the black soldiers refused any pay until they got same pay, again publicly shaming those leaders who made that decision and so again the soldiers got paid the same as white. Then the leaders tried to keep the black soldiers from battle, and just used them to do menial soldier's work, in order to keep them from proving their equality as soldiers. Don't give them the opportunity and everyone will always wonder could they really do it. Then the leader who loved and believed in his troops demanded the military use his troops the same as white soldiers and those soldiers took on one of the worst of battles in the civil war, and fought in a battle many whites would have said no to, and in fact they gave up trying after this regiment lost so many of its fighters. However, from that point on black soldiers were respected in our military.

Change comes by public outcry from within the religion, government etc., not by allowing people a new cage, not by making them experience utter and absolute humiliation and degradation of their humanity first. Not by telling them "Don't they know that they deserve from birth to always be last for justice?" Shame on you sir. There is nothing Christian in what you are suggesting. Nothing Holy. Yours is the voice of oppression and segregation and extreme damage and abuse. You have been misled.

Justice is always radical, as it always enters in with a battle, and the fist of God, conquering the evil that was comfortably existing before it's entrance.

When they were considering making Permanent Deacons 50 years ago, the bishops were considering making female deacons too. The males did not stand up for them and they don't now except to get female support for married male priests. Orthodox Christians have always had married priests and they have no female priest even though many women in these churches have claimed to be called to priesthood too. More celibate priests have supported women's equal ordination than married male deacons. The majority of Catholics worldwide that can read in their own language support women's priestly and same ordination and have for decades. We have become more sexist not less over time.

I suggest you think about these truths and facts sir before you tell another women she needs to earn her humanity slowly. Before you tell her the married man deserves two vocations before she deserves the one she was most called to by God. Consider how Jesus would view your suggestion to your sisters. Consider how he told all of us to never treat anyone differently than we wish to be treated. The 12 apostles had to represent the bloodline of Abraham's tribes so to fulfill this prophesy and promise to Abraham, they had to be male and non-gentile. There is nothing in the Gospel allowing women to be treated any differently than men in our church. The church knows this and that is why they have ordered silence on the dialogue for the last several decades. People who have a legitimate reason for their actions toward others aren't afraid to explain themselves or dialogue endlessly and openly on the subject matter. Clearly, our leadership already knows this bias is sin.

Henry George
5 months 2 weeks ago

Nora,

Some of your claims are unsubstantiable or do not really apply.
You can look at the Anglican Church or you can continue in your radical ways of demanding immediate change.
If History is on your side, then follow the Anglican path toward change.

As long as you keep demanding you will just be put off by the reply that no one can demand priesthood.

Henry George
5 months 3 weeks ago

Fr. Martin, S.J., why so much emphasis on the Pope being a member
of the Society of Jesus when he is a Christian foremost.

I find Pope Francis to be a bit iron handed under that velvet glove
that he does not wear.
Dismissing people from their offices may be for the good of the
Church, but doing out of the blue, if that is what happens, seems
harsh.

I pray that he allows the continuation of the "Latin Mass" for the sake
of those who find solace in it.

That Pope Francis lives simply is a quality that many Jesuits
need to emulate.

Adrian Johnson
5 months 3 weeks ago

"Some popes the Lord gives, others He tolerates, and yet others He inflicts." --St. Vincent of Lerins .
The "St Gallen Mafia" openly bragged about campaigning to get Cardinal Bergoglio elected; this is clearly against canon law and so the validity of his election is open to question. But who am I to judge?

The Church has survived "problematic" popes in the past; it will survive Pope Francis, formed in South America where Tielhard de Chardin is being rehabilitated, and (condemned) Liberation Theology is still viewed sympathetically.
I just hope "progressive" Pope Francis doesn't throw the Chinese Catholics under the bus to make a dubious deal with the Communist Chinese Government.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
4 months 4 weeks ago

Pope Francis is a precious gift of God to humanity and the Planet.

Alex Thaimor
4 months 3 weeks ago

Great aricle...The way you presented is really good.CK Couplings are very much interested.thank you for sharing this

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