First Impressions, The Anchor, March 22, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
March 22, 2013

Most of us in Rome to cover the papal conclave and inauguration are still getting over the shock at Pope Francis’ election. We thought that it was certainly possible, if the conclave dragged on and a compromise candidate was needed, the very well-respected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, who seems to have been the runner-up to Pope Benedict in the last conclave, might be chosen.

When the white smoke went up last Tuesday after only five ballots, few of the hundred thousand pilgrims who had assembled in St. Peter’s Square were anticipating that after Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said the famous words, “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus papam!,” he was about to mention, “Reverendissiumum Dominum, Dominum Georgium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio.”

A stunned silence hit the crowd. Everyone began asking, “Who?” They were expecting to hear “Angelum … Scola” or “Marcum … Ouellette,” and the majority of Italians — not to mention Americans — were hoping for “Joannem … O’Malley” or “Timotheum … Dolan.”

Even though many in the crowd were happy when they heard the new pontiff had taken the name Francis, there was a notable depression among the multitudes. Rather than the excited cheering, singing and rejoicing that awaited Pope Benedict’s coming out on the loggia in 2005, the crowd was subdued, similar to what happens in a football stadium when the home team is losing big in the fourth quarter.

The situation got worse when the new Holy Father finally came out on the balcony. He just stood there, staring downward, saying nothing, almost looking like he was about to cry. One of the Italians behind me blurted, “He looks so sad.” I knew from the homework I had done on all the cardinals for the EWTN broadcasts that some said he seldom smiled. I was afraid that they were right. I was a little worried for the future.

But when they placed a microphone before him, everything changed. He came totally alive. He smiled with a smile as big as Bernini’s colonnade. “Buona Sera!,” he said resoundingly— and it was a “good evening” indeed, one of the most memorable of all our lives.

Like a spiritual father, he then led us in prayer, the simple prayers every Catholic knows: an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be in gratitude to the Lord for the papacy of Pope Benedict. He prayed each of them with such a piety and passion that there wasn’t a dry eye around me.

But then it got even more moving. Before giving us his first solemn “urbi et orbi” blessing — a benediction “for the city and the world” — he asked all of us to do him a favor: to pray to the Lord to bless him first. He asked for silence. Then he bowed down profoundly to receive the blessing of Almighty God.

At first we all looked around at each other incredulous and wondered what was happening. But seeing him bent over on the large screens, all of us just bowed our heads and prayed. At various of the television networks, those who didn’t know what was happening were scrambling, thinking that they had lost their audio feed — for you could have heard a feather drop in a square filled with more than 100,000 people.

And after his blessing, he asked us never to stop praying for him, that the Lord will continue to bless him so that through him the Lord can bless us all.

And it’s obvious to me that those prayers are working.

I hope in subsequent weeks in this column to explore the thought of the man who became Pope Francis. Since his election I’ve been reading his homilies, letters, articles, and a book-length interview with him. It’s a gold mine of spiritual wisdom that has not yet been translated into English that will nourish us all.

Today, however, I’d like to share with you three first impressions.

Above all, the cardinals have elected someone who is pre-eminently a pastor, not a professor. On my first night in Rome, I had dinner with the other members of Raymond Arroyo’s “conclave crew” and “papal panel.” Teammate Robert Royal provocatively asked whether we needed another teaching pope. He was grateful, he said, for the teaching treasure bequeathed to us by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, building on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but added that he believes that what the Church needs most is a pope who helps us to learn and live that rich teaching.

I think that’s the type of pope God has given us. In his initial days, Pope Francis has been modeling for us — in his homilies without notes, in his departures from his written addresses, in his body language — what the assimilation of that teaching means.

My second impression is that he was elected by the cardinals to reform not just the Vatican but the entire Church. And the ways he’s going to carry out that reform is much more profound than most analysts and perhaps even cardinals foresaw.

When Jesus from the cross of San Damiano summoned St. Francis to rebuild his Church, Francis originally thought that the Lord was requesting the reconstruction of that tiny dilapidated church. Actually, the Lord had a much bigger construction project in mind: rebuilding the Church as a whole, which is made not out of marble, wood, bricks and glass, but men, women, boys and girls — living stones, built on the holy cornerstone of Christ.

Likewise, the reforms the cardinals and Pope Francis are hoping to implement are more than just of the Vatican. Reform means to “bring into shape again” and it’s far more than the papal court that needs to shape up. We all need to convert. We all need to turn with our whole heart to the God Who never tires of giving us His love and mercy.

In his first homily as pope, he called us all to a three-fold renewal. Speaking to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel from a make-shift pulpit in the colloquial form of parish priests, he said that the Lord is calling us to follow him in a three-fold interior and exterior exodus:

First, to walk by faith in the light of Christ’s presence and teachings. Many who say they believe in Jesus don’t really act on His words. Pope Francis is summoning everyone, beginning with the cardinals, to this Christian integrity.

Second, to build up the Church by becoming strong, consistent, living stones who build their whole lives on Christ. Many erect only sand-castles, the pope said, that can’t resist the tides. Beginning with himself, he was calling all of us to build our lives on rock.

Third, to confess Jesus Christ as our first and supreme act of love toward others. Many view the Church basically as a philanthropic organization that runs schools, hospitals, and pantries. Francis is calling all believers to care for others’ deepest desires, wounds, and hungers by bringing them to Jesus the Teacher, Physician, and Living Bread.

In seven minutes, he proposed a simple three-point plan for the beginning of the renewal and reform of the Church he was elected to carry out — humbly hoping that all members of the Church, from the cardinals to you and me, will walk, build and confess together with him.

My final initial observation is how natural, funny and joyous our Pope Francis is.

Contrary to the reports that he seldom smiles, he almost hasn’t stopped smiling since his election. Not only is he obviously comfortable in his black shoes and white cassock, but he seems to be loving what he’s been asked to do: to guide us all in the joy-filled journey, the beautiful building up of the Church, and the contagious Confession of Christ, which is the path of the Church’s reform.