It was a fairly normal March afternoon and I was at my computer working on my senior project, with a livestream of the Conclave playing in the background from Salt+Light TV. The anchors were discussing all the possibilities facing the Church, which of the “papabile” was the most likely candidate, and reflecting on the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Then I heard it, like a bell suddenly pealing out in the middle of the night:
“And it looks like we have black smoke again… Actually, it’s looking a little greyish… Wait a minute… White smoke! WE HAVE WHITE SMOKE! The Cardinals have elected the next Pope!!”
My heart leapt with excitement as I ran to the TV to watch coverage on the news. Every major network had had their eyes fixed on Rome since the College of Cardinals began arriving for Conclave. Every night the news would show video of that little smokestack on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. But this night was unlike any other night in recent memory. The white smoke, the “fumata bianca," had been spotted: the Church had Her new Vicar of Christ!
My thoughts quickly jumped back to my freshman year of high school, the year Pope Benedict XVI was elected. It was all new to me then, as John Paul II had been Pontiff for my entire life. This time was different: I understood what the Conclave was, how it worked, and what to expect when the new Pope was revealed to the world. When “Cardinal Protodeacon” Jean-Louis Tauran came to the loggia of St. Peter’s, it felt as though the whole world held its breath. Even the news anchors had gone silent until the words “Habemus Papam," which caused the crowd in the piazza to explode with cheers. Though there was confusion as to who this Cardinal Bergoglio was, it was quickly forgotten when his chosen name was announced: Francis, the first Pontiff ever to take the name of one of the world’s most well-known and beloved saints. Clearly, this new Pontiff had plans to set the bar high. St. Francis is, after all, most well-known for his simple lifestyle of meekness and poverty.
When he stepped out onto the balcony, Pope Francis did not disappoint. He looked overwhelmed and nervous, yet very much at peace with the decision of the Cardinals. He warmly greeted the crowd and then, to everyone’s shock, bowed before the whole world to ask each of us for our prayers. It was a poignant gesture, the likes of which the world rarely sees these days. I myself was nearly moved to tears, as this man, whose name I’d never even heard before, was bowing and asking me for my prayers as he took up the hardest job in the Church. It was a touching moment I’ll not soon forget.
In the year that has passed since then, Pope Francis has remained consistent in his message of evangelizing by authentic Christian living. Much like his namesake, who is often paraphrased as saying “preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary," Francis has spent his pontificate challenging Christians everywhere to practice what we preach, in both word and deed. Even in the face of hot-button political issues, he successfully reminds the world that each person and situation we meet is an opportunity to encounter Christ and share His message.
In our meme-driven world of social media, there have been many images created to try and encapsulate various aspects of Pope Francis’s message in both witty and moving ways. There is one, however, that paints a beautiful picture of continuity between Francis and his two predecessors:
It has been said that Pope Francis has a radical new approach to Catholicism. This is a rather naïve analysis; he is presenting a two thousand year old message in a simple and authentic manner. It’s not that Francis is telling the world anything particularly earth-shattering, it’s that he’s challenging the world without us realizing it. His demeanor is warm and inviting, but his message is a true call to action. It isn’t enough to simply profess faith; we must live it daily in order to meet and serve Christ Himself in others.
As we celebrate the first year of Pope Francis’s pontificate, we continue to pray for him and for the Church. May our work model the example set by the Holy Father:
“Let us learn from Christ how to pray, to forgive, to sow peace, and to be near those in need.” –Pope Francis, Feb 18, 2014
Viva il Papa!
Jay Schaefer is the Webinar Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center