Fr Richard Leonard
The Election was first published in Eureka Street
It’s only by good luck and blessing that I found myself in Rome during these days. I have been booked to come as a visiting professor to the Gregorian University for the last twelve months. Obviously BXVI got wind of it and resigned, setting in motion the events of recent days.
On Tuesday morning I was being interviewed by Geraldine Doogue for “Compass” on the roof of the Jesuit Curia, right next to the St Peter’s Square, when the black smoke went up. I said to Gerry on air, “It’s just like so many people’s impressions of the Catholic Church – black or white!” That gem deserves to be left on the cutting room floor. No one thought the Conclave would have it done after three votes, and most seasoned Vatican-watchers were saying Thursday midday.
I finished teaching at 7pm. The first clue that something was on were the bells. As the white smoke went up, the bells at St Peter’s starts ringing and, through a centuries-old tradition, the tolling cascades from one belfry to the next. It took two minutes for the churches around the Trevi Fountain, where the Gregorian is located, to ring out the news. I guess a tweet would be quicker, but less poetic.
At that moment a Polish nun, in full habit ran past me shouting ‘fumare bianca, fumare bianca’. Sister was excited. And all of a sudden so was I. These last days have seen this extraordinary Catholic theatre: where 115 men talk to the world via a chimney stack. It was time for the ‘big reveal’. I now know where real-life TV gets this stuff from.
There are moments in your life when the effort is worth it. St Peter’s is a good 25 minutes walk from where I am living. I could have watched it all on television. It was cold and drizzling. But sometimes you just have to be there. Every road was leading to the Vatican. Even what passes for Roman road rules were in suspension, though it was hard to tell. I am not sure I have ever experienced such a group-buzz before. On arrival at the Square, 100,000 others wanted to see history too. Being a single traveller is often an advantage and I got a great spot in front of the left-hand Bernini fountain. It’s also a prime spot for the huge screen. That proved to be essential.
Until the first group emerges on that balcony you might think that up-close in the Square would be best. Wherever you are, when the human beings emerge on that perch you realise how far away it is and small they are. It comes as no surprise that as a cinema scholar I thanked God for the big screen yet again! But, the Oscar goes to…. the Square’s sound designer. Modern acoustics meets a Renaissance masterpiece. Every word perfectly surrounded Bernini’s columns.
At 8.06pm the lights went on in the balcony loggia and the crowd went wild. It took another nine minutes for a Cardinal, who looked decidedly unsteady on his feet, to come out and tell us that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected Pope
Francis I. Jorge who? I was the only one who knew his name and that he was a Jesuit. In fact I had been on a panel discussion on Ireland’s RTE radio last Monday where he was talked about and their Vatican correspondent, Gerald O’Connell, said he could be the compromise candidate. I had told Geraldine Doogue the same thing that morning. I hope she was impressed with my skills as a prophet, as I am by Mr O’Connell’s.
Because I knew more than anyone else about our brand-new Holy Father, I became our area’s papal expert. All internet access was down due to overload. All I knew was that he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, 76, a Jesuit and he was runner-up to Benedict XVI last time around. The rest I made up and sounded authoritative. My new and temporary disciples in the Square lapped it up. I was translated into several languages. If only more of my books would be!
Francis stood there alone for what seemed like the cruellest time and then I realised why Royal families never appear on balconies on their own. Never. You can only wave so often, and royal families have a lifetime to practise it. That’s why they come in twos and chat and wave and chat and wave. The new Pope had 73 minutes to learn the wave, and no one with whom to chat. He looked stunned.
There was conjecture about who and why “Francis”. I started giving out my well-known class on “boy saints whose names begin with F”, and confidently asserted that it was a complex mix of Assisi, Xavier and Borgia. A Latvian woman nearby interjected, “No Borgia could have become a saint”. She failed my class, but, today, my own mark went down as well because we discover it’s not as convoluted as my theory was, it rarely is, but is all about Frank Assisi’s mission to rebuild Christ’s Church. That will do me, and we have a lot of work to do.
Then we got the “buona sera” and the Latin Americans went nuts. Understandably. This guy is now the most famous Argentine ever, jumping to first place over Che, Evita and Maradona. Now with ‘Francis’ they specialise in one-name handles too, but with friends like that….
But he went on to speak as the Bishop of Rome “who presides over all the Churches in charity. It is a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust between us.” Not lost on me. He is no ruler lording it over anyone. He is a pastor, and a leader who knows that the best to get others to follow you is to empower them and lead by example. I felt a bit empowered just listening to him. Before he gave us his blessing, he did something I have never seen a Pope do, he asked us to come to silence and pray for him, and then he bent over in a reverential bow, first and foremost before God, but also before us in the Square, and before the world. And 100,000 people were immediately obedient. Still. Silent. Stunning. We realised that he was a genuinely humble man who understood something about holiness. We all bow in awe before mystery.
As he laughed and said, “Good night and have a good rest”, and turned and walked inside it felt like your Grandpa was saying “it’s been a big day for everyone, and way past all our bed times”.
We’re told today that he later refused the papal limousine back to the Cardinal’s house. He rode the bus with the rest of the boys. I rode the bus home too, but peace on earth and good will to all can only last so long. My trip was packed, uncomfortable and rocky. I fear Francis I’s is soon going to be the same. But at least we glimpsed last night that our driver might know the way, because he is, at heart, a fellow traveller.
If the cascading bells of Rome heralded the papal election, the hovering helicopters announced the papal installation. From 6am. It was part security detail and part media circus. Unlike the cheery bells, those spinning blades are a foreboding fanfare. On arrival in St Peter’s Square, Redgum’s “Only 19” came to mind, “And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep? And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?”
There were, however, other excellent portents. Rome has been cold, wet and miserable for the last week. Today it was bursting sunshine with clear blue skies and warm. I do not believe in praying about the weather, but others do, and it was from their lips to God’s ears. I might have to revisit my anti-meteorology stance once more.
The security in the Square was an Italian joke. Bags were x-rayed, but as we all walked through the personal security scanner, it was beeping like a carnival. No further action was taken by anyone. “Martyrdom may not be far away today”, I thought. The crowd was, by that number’s standards and as one would hope at Mass, very well behaved. The banners and flags were annoying obstacles to a good view, though I offered it up for the universal church. The largest flag I could see was, of course, Australian. I wonder if “Oi! Oi! Oi!” is originally Spanish? Francis might like that. He was spared.
40 minutes to start time, His Holiness appeared and did the rounds of the square in the Popemobile. The applause was muted not because of a lack of affection for the new Pontiff, but because you can’t clap when you have to capture the experience on your iPhone or iPad. We are so busy recording our experiences, I wonder if we have them.
Pope Francis kissed the obligatory baby, but, near to me, he asked the car to stop. In the crowd he saw an older, very disabled man, lying on a stretcher. Alighting, he went over to him and caressed, kissed and blessed him. At that moment it felt like we were playing the crowd part in Mark 2:1-12. I swear if that man got up, packed up his stretcher and walked, none of us would have been surprised.
As with his sainted namesake, I think this Pope sees the poor. He really sees them. We didn’t know it, but it was the curtain raiser for the “tenderness” he would speak of five times in his homily. “Miserando atque elgigendo”, the papal motto, is not just a heraldic nicety it seems, it’s a creed to be lived and shared: “lowly yet chosen.” I think Francis will be challenging the world to stop averting our collective gaze.
The changes to the liturgy were not accidents. Francis asked for the Gospel to be chanted only in the original Greek, and not in Latin as well. This will certainly not placate those in the Church who want liturgical Latin to be restored. Pope Francis wanted a simpler, shorter Mass. He got the latter. At 85 minutes it was a virtual belt-through the sacred rites.
This time around the wall of six candles seemed to be more on the side of the altar, and there was certainly a noticeable shrinkage in the yards of lace in the surplices, and fewer birettas on the heads, of the prelates. What a difference six days make. A poorer Church is an appropriately simpler one too.
And the next time someone disapprovingly tells me that a particular Mass was “too theatrical”, I am sending them the DVD of this one. Except for the music, this high, formal and Catholic ritual was sacred drama at its best.
The homily was stunning and by Papal standards relatively brief and accessible. Using St Joseph’s feast day and his example in the Gospels as a point of departure, His Holiness spoke of how his ministry, and through him the entire church, has to protect creation and the environment. “I ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!” The climate-change skeptics will love that!
And from being good stewards of creation, we were challenged to join him as a servant of Christ in protecting “every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love.” Towards the end, he spoke directly of the power of his
new ministry, a ministry of service, where “… inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!”
In the last six days we have heard a lot about simpler things: he rides the bus, cooks his meals, pays his bills, only flies economy class, thinks that 300 people could live in the Papal apartments, rejected the silk and ermine cape, chose a gem-less second-hand silver-plated ring, goes off script, speaks from the heart, prefers lower-key vestments and told the Argentines not to come to Rome but to donate the money to the poor.
In isolation these things are irrelevant, inconsequential and even comic. Taken together, however, they confront a princely mentality whose names are wealth and it trappings, prestige, privilege and power. But the reign of God is not of this world, and Francis is already pointing to where it is to be found: for Christ came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
By 1pm the helicopters were gone and the crowd had dispersed. Francis was greeting Heads of State & Government. The cleaners moved into the square and its surrounds. The real work begins tomorrow. The Pope has some serious house-cleaning to do as well. Thank God the only other being I know that ‘hovers’ is the Holy Spirit, and after this week I know again that it “abides with us still.”
The Election was first published in Eureka Street
Photos: Fr Ariel Beramendi
Fr Richard Leonard, SJ, directs the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting and is a visiting professor at the Gregorian University, Rome. He is the author of several books including most recently “Why Bother Praying?”