Yesterday, for the first time in about four years, we monks got out the television to watch the news after we heard the reports of white smoke. We had just finished cleaning up after the main meal, and our timing was pretty good, as we needed to wait only about a half-hour to learn about the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I. It was especially gratifying for me, inasmuch as I missed the introduction of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 because I was travelling.
A few observations regarding the conclave and its results…The speed at which the Cardinals elected Pope Francis was quite encouraging. He was obviously considered a strong candidate going in and was almost certainly a strong candidate at the last conclave. Even so, I don’t have the sense that anyone was much expecting Cardinal Bergoglio to be elected, and this was, in its own way, quite satisfying, too.
That he is Argentinian is such a blessing in so many ways. He is the first pope from either the Western or Southern hemispheres. As significant as this is, I don’t see it as representing some kind of shift in the consciousness of the electorate. Rather, the selection of a non-European (even if with Italian ancestry), reflects necessarily the changing face of the Church in general and the corresponding make-up of the college of Cardinals. If you were to compare the provenance of the electors of this conclave with the conclave that elected Pius XII, say, my meaning would be readily apparent. In the 1930′s, a considerable majority of the electors were Italian, not just European, and the number of non-Europeans was negligible. The bigger shift took place with the election of John Paul II, a non-Italian. Once this decision was made, it seemed a matter of time before candidates from outside Europe would emerge. This is in no way to downplay this significance of the event; rather it is reason to celebrate the real Catholicity of the Church, and to be reminded in a powerful way that the strength of the Church Militant is very much in the Western and Southern hemispheres. A Spanish-speaking pope seems almost obvious now that we have one.
Pope Francis was ordained to the priesthood in 1969, and this small fact represents another major (if slow) development in the Church. Pope Paul VI oversaw the last sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was one of the significant voices and shapers of the documents. Father Josef Ratzinger was a mere peritus as a young priest during the Council. Brother Jorge Mario Bergoglio was not even ordained yet! This means that his entire priestly ministry has taken place in the context of Vatican II. Slowly and painstakingly, the New Evangelization called for by the Council Fathers is finding deeper and deeper roots in the hearts and consciences of all the faithful, including the Holy Father. If I can oversimplify, I would suggest that John Paul II was something of a theoretician and innovator, an energetic leader in the uncertainty following the Council; Benedict XVI followed with a more serene and long view, able to see the Council in a broader ecclesial context. Pope Francis will surely have little of the felt pressure either to justify the Council or to address the claims of those who dislike or reject the Council. This is in large part thanks to the good work of his predecessors, but also is simply a natural given, since the generation of priests (and faithful) formed before the Council is nearly gone. This seems to me an especially opportune time to sound the theme of solidarity and communio amongst all believers, in order that we go forward together with the Good News.
Praised be Jesus Christ!