How to Understand the Papal Election, New Bedford Standard Times, March 17, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 17, 2013

One of the perks of working as an accredited journalist for a papal conclave is that, once the new pope is elected, you have a private audience with him — if you call a get-together with about 6,000 others “private.”

This encounter is an opportunity to hear from the new pope directly. Historically it’s been an occasion for him to do three things: to thank the journalists who have helped people in their respective countries to participate in and understand better the events; to answer some of the questions he knows they have been asking; and to ponder with them the deeper meeting of the events that they have just covered.

All three of these objectives were met yesterday when Pope Francis invited the journalists who have invaded the city to meet with him in the Paul VI audience hall.

First, he showed his sincere appreciation for the long days and nights most of us have put in over the last fortnight. “I would like to thank you in a special way,” he said in beautiful Italian, “for the professional coverage that you provided during these days — you really worked, didn’t you! — when the eyes of the whole world, and not just those of Catholics, were turned to the Eternal City.”

Then, with a lot of humor, he sought to answer one of the most common questions journalists have been asking: how he, a Jesuit, chose his papal name after the holy founder of the Franciscans. “I want to tell you a story,” he began, and let us experience a little of the drama that happened within him inside the Sistine Chapel.

He recounted that when things started to get “dangerous,” and he had received more than two-thirds of the electors’ votes, a Brazilian cardinal consoled him by reminding him not to forget the poor, that he could really help the Church become poorer in spirit and of greater assistance to the poor.

That thought, he continued, led him to think of St. Francis, the great saint of evangelical poverty, the apostle of peace, and the troubadour of appreciation for God’s creation — all very relevant issues for the Church and the world today.

To me it was striking that the new Pope hadn’t even considered the name Francis until after he had received more than 77 votes and was waiting for the scrutineers and revisers to finish counting and recounting the ballots.

Finally, Pope Francis turned to the proper “hermeneutic,” or interpretative perspective, to understand what had just happened in Rome with his election. His words are particularly helpful not only for journalists but for all those who read, listen to and view our work.

In his characteristically meek manner, the new Pontiff made this point by expressing particular gratitude to “those who viewed and presented these events of the Church’s history in a way that was sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith.”

There’s a temptation, he observed, to forget that the even though the Church is human and historical, she’s essentially a spiritual, not political, institution and can be adequately comprehended “only from this perspective.”

“With her virtues and her sins,” the most genuine way to understand her, he stressed, is to “know the spiritual concerns that guide her.”

With regard to those concerns, he underlined that members of the Church and journalists have something profound in common: that we do not seek to communicate ourselves to others, but the what’s true, good, and beautiful.

The Church believes, he said, that that “existential triad” is found in a person, Jesus Christ, who — rather than the Pope — is the center, fundamental reference point and the heart of the Church. That’s the “right context” to move beyond superficiality and understand in the depth the events we have been examining here in Rome.

And that’s also the context to understand what is still to come.