As Pope Francis celebrates Mass on Sunday, March 13, he will also be marking the occasion when he ascended to the chair of Peter exactly three years ago. There will be people who will acknowledge it publicly, with congratulations, prayers, and very earnest good wishes; and given his self-awareness, he will graciously accept and welcome them. But given the personality of the pope, he will more likely prefer to mark the occasion privately and quietly, on his knees, in sincere prayer and petition.
As he marks this anniversary, he will have much to pray about and pray over. He came close to being elected in the 2005 conclave that resulted in the election of now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI; the then Cardinal Bergoglio demurred and urged Cardinal Ratzinger’s election, only to find himself subsequently chosen in turn by the Sacred College in the 2013 conclave in the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation. And ever since that evening when he simply appeared, simply attired in the white soutane, Pope Francis has never ceased to be a figure of great interest. Almost immediately, he was granted great goodwill and not a little sympathy, in recognition of the enormous burden he assumed upon himself after he gave his assent to the cardinal dean when he approached him with the question that not only completely changed his own life, but of the life of the church as well.
The person of the pope—whoever he is—elicits great interest and even greater curiosity, which is only natural. Everyone wonders what it must be like to be suddenly put forward as the chosen one to head one of the world’s oldest religions which, as Catholics believe and hold, is an office divinely inspired and created by Jesus himself when he commissioned Peter the fisherman to be “the keeper of the keys” and the first pastor of the flock that would evolve in time to become the Roman Catholic Church. The petrine office is unique it that it must deal—often simultaneously—with things temporal as well as spiritual and we need only to turn the pages of history to see how Peter’s successors have handled that charge. Still, it is the human aspect that captures our imaginations; we wonder how a normal human being can adjust to a position of untold power and influence. It is a position that a person buttressed with self-awareness could never accept without trepidation but can only do so with a trust born from faith.
At the time of the papal interregnum, I had a chance, thanks to an Italian film, to experience at a remove what it must be like to find yourself in such a situation, being elected pope. The film, naturally enough, was entitled "Habemus Papam" and had originally been released in 2011 but was released as a DVD by the time the 2013 conclave came around. Directed by Nanni Moretti and starring Michel Piccoli as the fictional pope, it proved to be not only an instructive lesson in the election of a pope but it also gave a very moving (and sometimes humorous) look at the emotional toll it must take upon a man who suddenly—through no fault of his own—to find himself the spiritual leader of the Catholic world. The basic plot (not to give a spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen the film) is that the prelate elected, Cardinal Melville, suddenly has a panic attack the minute he is about to be presented on the other side of the balcony curtains to the waiting faithful. With hands upraised to his head, the overwhelmed cardinal-elected-pope literally runs in holy terror screaming “NO!” all the way back the place where his election had taken place, winded and worried, completely perplexed with what happened to him, and leaving the perturbed members of the Sacred College of Cardinals wondering what to do next.
I thought of that scene in the movie when I saw Pope Francis on the balcony, on that March night, standing stock still before us, looking over the multitudes before he ever said a word or uttered a prayer. Fortunately, Mario Bergoglio was no Cardinal Melville—but surely he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t felt some trepidation as he was escorted to what is called "The Room of Tears" or as it's more popularly known, “The Crying Room,” where the newly elected pontiff changed from his cardinalatial red to the papal white.
There is the story that Pope Leo XIII—at the age of 65—entered the 1878 conclave with the aid of a cane and cried upon election that he was too old for it and that he would surely die. Somehow, Cardinal Pecci was transformed; the kindly Pope Leo ended up living to the ripe old age of 93 writing witty limericks in Latin and writing seminal encyclicals on the rights of workers. Even Good Pope John XXIII, when looking at himself in a full-length mirror, attired in the papal white that didn’t quite fit his ample frame (even with the aid of well-placed safety pins) was heard to say with his customary good humor: “This man will be a disaster on television!” And before he was led into the “Crying Room,” Albino Luciani, (who had chosen the double-barreled name of John Paul I) the “Thirty-Three Day Pope” said to the cardinal that asked him the question, “May God forgive you for what you have done in my regard.” (The well-read pope said it good-naturedly and was merely quoting an ancient pope who had said the same thing.) We do not know what Pope Francis said or thought in the “Crying Room,” but we know what he must have felt there.
No doubt that in the quiet of his room or in the presence of his Lord in the chapel of Santa Marta, Pope Francis will have an examen of his life since that momentous evening when he gave his Yes. And there is no doubt that he will pray for courage, an ever-more trusting faith and the endurance to fulfill his duties as best he can in service to the church.
For Pope Francis, the best thing the faithful can do for him on this anniversary is to accompany him on his journey with our good works and also with our prayers. Maybe someday, armed with that assurance, he might be able, if he ever passes by the “crying room” again, he can smile, comforted by the knowledge that we are all with him, every step of the way.