Good day from Rome, the first day of the pontificate of Pope Francis. It’s a very ordinary Thursday here; one would never know that a little less than 24 hours ago, the city was a frenzy of tears, cheers, smiles and prayers. The rain fell hard last night as what seemed like half of Italy made its way to Saint Peter’s Square following the news that white smoke was wafting from the Sistine chimney (that no one was killed in the mass dash across the city’s slippery cobblestones was a minor miracle in itself). Also miraculous, it would seem, is that a Jesuit now sits on the throne of Saint Peter. As I went to bed last night, it occurred to me that the only folks more worked up than the Argentinians and the people of Rome were probably the conspiracy theorists who see in the new pope the final, definitive proof that the Jesuits control the world (I can assure you that a single visit to a Jesuit community meeting would disavow any reasonable human being of even the possibility of that notion).
In any event, it was a surprising pick, the kind that fuels the conspiratorial fantasies of the modern soothsayers who linger in the shadowy corners of the Internet. Already, for example, we have heard about the new pope’s alleged complicity in some kind of Argentinian authoritarianism; the denizens of Dan Brown’s universe tend to disregard the fact that the story comes largely from a single, questionable source. The fact that most Romans, a people highly skilled in the art of gossip, are not trucking in this particular conspiracy theory also suggests that it is baseless. In fact, the Romans I have encountered are delighted by the cardinal’s choice. As I was leaving the CNN Rome Center late last night, I encountered an elderly Roman couple who stopped to tell me that in their judgment the new pope is as good as any Italian. High praise indeed.
A lifetime ago (last month in New York) I watched Grant Gallicho of Commonweal magazine talk on WABC about the pope’s resignation. He said: “I fully expect to be surprised.” I wasn’t so sure. I now think that he was right (though maybe he now thinks that he was wrong). The cardinals surprised us in three ways: First, as I said, they picked a Jesuit. The Jesuits, most of whom take a special vow of obedience to the pope in matters of mission, have, ironically, had a rocky relationship with Rome over the centuries. Most recently, in the early 1980s, the Vatican intervened in the internal governance of the Society; it was thought that the Jesuits had grown a little too comfortable with liberal democracy and/or Marxist ideology. That the cardinals would even consider choosing a Jesuit now marks a new beginning in that relationship. It is, one prays, a moment of reconciliation.
The cardinals also surprised us by picking a Latin American. It was always possible, of course, but no one here really thought it probable. I don’t think they picked him because he’s a Latin American, but that they picked a Latin American makes sense, given that the church’s center of gravity continues its southerly shift. A thought while shaving: the Jesuits helped to bring the faith to the new world, following, for good and ill, the Spanish and Portuguese flags. Now, more than five centuries later, the new world has sent a Jesuit back to the capital of the old world to lead its new evangelization. Interesting, huh?
Lastly, the Cardinals surprised us by picking someone who is 76 years old. Like it or not, this will not be a long pontificate (though our hopes and prayers this morning are for Francis’ health and longevity). It was his age, in fact, that left Bergoglio near the bottom of the list of papabile. Nearly everyone believed that the new pope would be a younger man, one with the energy to meet the church’s enormous challenges. Still, as one man told me last night, age is a matter of mindset. Perhaps. I can say from my own experience of living with men in their seventies and eighties, that the notion that someone of that age cannot necessarily meet the mental and physical demands of hard work is just so much ‘stronzate’.
As is the custom, sometime in the next few months, the superior general of the Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, will walk the short distance from the Jesuit headquarters here in Rome to the apostolic palace, where he will meet the new pope and, in the traditional way, assure him of the society’s commitment to serve the see of Peter. In a unique way, on that particular occasion, Fr. General will carry not only the promise of our filial obedience to the new Holy Father, but our fraternal love for our brother Jesuit and, if you’ll permit me to say so, our pride.