At the Vatican today, during a special audience with members of the Catholic Action movement of Italy, a young—and a visibly very pleased—young girl presented a birthday cake to Pope Francis, who now finds himself 79 years young.
For the great majority of us, we don’t usually celebrate our birthdays in such a public way; but given that the pope is a public figure—and particularly this pope—it is an unavoidable and yet happy circumstance.
Having a birthday—whatever the numeral turns out to be—is a significant milestone in anyone’s life, whether you’re rich or poor, famous or not—but for Pope Francis this particular birthday, just one year short of his 80th, is special just the same. This birthday caps a very busy year for him; for those of us in America, the highlight of the year was his visit amongst us for those few happy days in September and for the rest of the church, it might well be the opening of the Holy Door for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which commenced on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
It has been a remarkable time these last few years for the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, late of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Could he have ever imagined what was about to happen to him as he walked those solemn steps into the Sistine Chapel back on that March day in 2013, about to participate—along with the other cardinals—in the conclave that was to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, who had just resigned? Did he, as any human being would, despite the pomp and the splendor of the surroundings, think of his life, his beginnings, and possibly his end and what it all meant to him? Such thoughts would not have been unnatural, as he was about to engage in what was quite possibly the most important task of his spiritual life to date, to look up at God and declare, to the best of his ability, whom he thought should be the person to lead God’s flock. As it turned out—as we all know now—it turned out to be him.
Who can forget that electric moment when he suddenly appeared on that balcony, simply dressed in white, and initially said not a word? He wasn’t dressed in the formal accoutrements of a newly-elected pontiff, with red mozzetta and stole, with the traditional red shoes attired on his feet. If, for the moment you forgot he was wearing papal white, he seemed as if, for all outward appearances, anyway, as a simple country priest in his soutane out among the people on a spring evening. But that was not so; he was the man wearing the papal white and he was much more than the simple country priest he appeared to be before the eyes of the world that were magnified by the television cameras.
Perhaps more than any other public figure (especially religious or spiritual ones), there are no more inherently arresting figure than that of a pope. At one blush, he is not only a priest (and a very elevated one at that) but a temporal ruler or to put it another way, a religious version of a head of state. It is true that popes at one time or other where actual temporal rulers, overseeing vast tracts of land and property. Popes are no longer in that mold, and history can be given the credit—and thanks—for that. In modern times, the papacy has taken on what it was originally meant to embody, that of a more spiritual cast. (Though over time, the “regal” aspects have become much less prominent and of lesser importance, thanks in large part to Pope Francis himself and most of his recent predecessors.) In so many ways, Pope Francis has been an arresting figure of interest to many people, not only to his co-religionists, but to people of the wider world as well.
If Pope Benedict’s most notable act was the resignation of his office, the most notable act of Pope Francis has been his effort to “go back to the sources,” as it were, to live out in the world—in the most public way possible—the ways of the Gospel, of Jesus himself. From his choice of name, to his public acts and his public utterances, Pope Francis has made simplicity a radical choice. For our ever-increasingly complex (and not to mention confounding) world, it is a choice that says much and to those who seek relevance, hope and solace, it means even more.
When this papacy ends, only God—and maybe Pope Francis himself—knows. As Catholics, we are taught that the Holy Spirit guides the church, especially during a papal election, when the Spirit comes upon the electors and guides them in their holy task. Pope Francis has accomplished much in these brief years of his papacy; and he hopes to accomplish more before his time is done. He does so with a sense of urgency, but he does so with an abiding faith that God—whom he has dedicated himself to ever since that day long ago, on that afternoon in confession, when he was overcome by mercy—will guide his every step and help him show the world that, in his encounters with it, there is another way to live and that happiness is not unachievable, not only necessary, but possible and needed.
So on this day, Pope Francis will blow out the symbolic candle on his birthday cake. He will do so, with one great wish: that the faith he has been graced with can be the patrimony of every human being, to the far end of the peripheries. In his heart, he believes that the faith he has been given—gift that it is—can do wonders not only for those who possess it, but for those to whom it is given. That may be what he learned long ago on that Argentine afternoon and has tried to present to us ever since that Roman night when he appeared for our blessing before giving us his own.
Happy Birthday, Pope Francis!