I was really surprised yesterday evening when I heard the announcement that Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as the new Pope and that he had taken the name of Francis. The Cardinal had not figured in any of the pundit short lists, and even though I had been to Buenos Aires a few times I do not remember ever having seen him or heard his name.
When the new Pope appeared on the balcony overlooking the Piazza San Pietro I thought he looked uncomfortable, almost apologetic as if to say, “I’m here not because I want to be here but only because they elected me”. What followed left me with the feeling, “I really do not know this man, but I like what I saw and heard”.
What impressed me more than anything else was when Pope Francis, before imparting the Papal blessing to Rome and to the world, asked the people to pray for him. The new Pope made a profound bow to the assembled people, and more than 100,000 people maintained a solemn silence for about 20 seconds while they prayed for Francis the Pope.
That simple gesture gave me hope that perhaps now we have a Pope who recognizes the enormous power and talent in the faithful Catholic laity who constitute more than 99% of the Church membership. This is in keeping with the Second Vatican Council which in many ways sought to empower the laity to take an active part in the life and governance of their Church.
Church authorities have been slow to fulfill the decisions of Vatican II in regard to sharing power with the laity. In fact the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that only the clergy are qualified to participate in the governance of the Church (Canon 129). Pope Francis’ humble gesture of respect towards the people raises the hope that he will be willing to engage the enormous talent and power of the Catholic laity at all levels of decision-making in the Church.
Pope Francis comes to the Papacy with the reputation of a man who is like his divine Master in his love of the poor and his caring for them. He lives a simple life in which there is no place for pomp and ceremony or the princely trappings of medieval finery. I think we have every reason to hope that he will bring to the Papacy that same simplicity of life and dedication to the poor.
I am willing to believe that Pope Francis is the kind of Pope the Church needs at this time. I want to believe that he will teach us by word and example that the Church is the Church of all God’s people, not just of the Cardinals and the clergy. I pray that he will be an instrument of God in helping the Church to become what she is meant to be, a loving mother to her children, and a living example to the whole world of God’s love for all humanity.