When the bells finally pealed and the white smoke wafted from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, a tidal wave of a roar rushed across St. Peter’s Square, traveled down the main thoroughfare at the foot of the basilica, finally broke at the River Tiber, rushed its opposite shore and flowed into the city beyond. In the following 45 minutes, what seemed like half of Rome made a dash to St. Peter’s. They did something Romans are loath to do: they abandoned their dinners. Making a beeline for the piazza, most of them were running, oblivious to the danger posed by the soaking wet cobblestones. Some even abandoned their cars to the massive traffic jams, while others sat and blared their horns, some celebrating, some venting their frustration.
While Catholics throughout the world were tuning in to learn the identity of the new pope, Romans were rushing to meet their new bishop. The pope is the pope, of course, precisely because he is bishop of Rome. In recent decades, however, as modern popes have traveled more widely and taken on an ever more prominent role in global affairs, the pope’s role as shepherd of the Roman flock has been downplayed, even delegated. The blessing given urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) during the traditional appearance of the newly elected pope on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica has been more orbi than urbi in recent times.
It was significant, then, that Pope Francis chose to address the people of Rome directly in the opening moments of his pontificate. “And now let us begin this journey, the bishop and people,” the pope said in his extemporaneous remarks. “My hope is that this journey of the church that we begin today, together with the help of my cardinal vicar, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city.”
Romans took note of the new pope’s words. Though drenched and freezing cold, all were smiling, some were crying. Cheers of “Francesco! Francesco! Francesco!” resounded throughout the square as the new pope greeted the exuberant crowd in Italian. “The choice of the name was beautiful for us. St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy,” said Celsa Negrini of Rome, who was in the crowd. “He seems very humble; his demeanor seems very positive. He will be a pope who evangelizes people’s consciences,” she added.
Unbeknownst to most of the crowd, the new pope also gently waded into a theological controversy in his opening remarks. A perennial question in theology is the relationship between the universal church (the church spread throughout the world, whose central authority is in Rome) and the particular church (the church of each local place or diocese). Theologians debate which has priority. It is not merely an academic question. How one answers it, theologians say, determines how one views questions of power and governance, the proper relationship between Rome and each diocese.
In his opening remarks, using an image of a united journey by the bishop and the people of Rome, Pope Francis added, “this journey of the church of Rome, which presides in charity over all the churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust.” In speaking directly to the people of Rome, the new pope was stressing the particular; by mentioning Rome’s presidential function, the pope also appealed to the universal.
All of that, however, was lost on most of the crowd. For one night, at least, the universal and the particular were visibly one, an ecclesial community united in faith hope and love. That feeling of community lingered after the pope said his words of greeting, ending with “have a good night and have a good rest” in Italian. Some hugged each other; many took pictures; many were talking excitedly about what they had just seen. Then the square slowly emptied and the Romans returned to their homes.