‘I announce to you a great joy: we have a pope.’ With these words, spoken in Latin, we learned that that the cardinal electors had completed their task and chosen the man who will lead and direct 1.2 billion of us as Bishop of Rome, 266th successor of St Peter and Vicar of Christ. The video footage from St Peter’s Square showed hundreds and hundreds of faces from all over the world, most of them young, waiting with great anticipation for that moment. When the pope finally appeared on the balcony, dressed in white but without the usual red mozetta, the joy was palpable. The significant choice of name, Francis, the beautiful gesture of bowing before the crowd and asking them to pray for him before he gave his blessing, the silence that accompanied the prayer, all these were reminders that the Church may not make much sense to those who don’t believe, but to those who do, it makes perfect sense.
We rejoice because we have a pope. Every single Catholic, whether Eastern Rite or Western Rite, whether attached to labels like liberal or conservative or utterly indifferent to them, rejoices because without a pope the Church is somehow incomplete. Each and every one of us has a personal connection to this man. At times that connection may be expressed negatively, but if so it will be with the negativity of family membership. For the moment, however, we are still absorbing the fact that we have a pope, and one whose experience ties him more to the southern hemisphere than to the northern. That will inevitably shock many who see the world through the lens of our Western preoccupations about sex and sit more lightly to the Church’s teaching about social justice.
During the next few days there will be many profiles of the pope and much media speculation about what he may or may not do. There is, however, one small fact about Pope Francis which will mean something to those who have any kind of respiratory difficulty. He effectively functions on one lung. Like the saint whose name he has taken, he bears within himself a secret pain, a physical limitation. As he begins his first full day in office, he knows that he must take on the task of rebuilding the Church with God’s strength, not his own. Let us pray for him.