Four years ago today, the Cardinals in Conclave in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Successor of Peter. It was an election under the sign of divine mercy, in keeping with the programmatic reading key, which the Pope Himself gave to his then episcopal coat of arms. An election on a program chosen by the Cardinal Electors, impressed by the intervention of the Argentine Cardinal during the “Pre-Conclave.” The choice of a Pope is God’s choice, but the Cardinals in prayer are also guided in their vote by this pre-discernment before the Conclave.
The Rain and the Jubilation
He thus became at 77 — he was born on December 17, 1936 — the 266th Pope: first Pope from the South of the world, and of the American Continent, first Pope of the Society of Jesus, and he took the name Francis, in reference to Saint Francis of Assisi and of the love of peace and of the poor. Rome had not had a non-European Bishop since Syrian Pope Gregory III in the 8th century.
The expectation made the cameras of the world point to the chimney of the roof of the Sistine. Then the white smoke indicated that the second vote of the afternoon ended with the election – on the fifth round of the balloting of 115 Cardinals – he was received by a powerful ovation in Saint Peter’s Square where, despite the rain, the crowds never stopped flowing. The first smoke of Tuesday evening, March 12, was black, followed by three other black smokes on Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon.
Then, at nightfall, from the loggia of blessings, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced the “great joy:: “Habemus Papam!”, and the name of the one elected who had chosen to be called “Francis.” Then Francis presented himself, silent at first, to the cheers while the fanfares played the hymns of the Vatican and of Italy.
The new Pope indicated to the media a few days later, that “Francis is the name of peace, and so that name came to me in my heart [. . .] During the election, I was next to the Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Claudio Hummes, a great friend [. . .] When the votes reached two-thirds, he clasped me in his arms and embraced me and said: “And don’t forget the poor!” Immediately, in relation to the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi, of the wars [. . .] He is for me the man of poverty, the man of peace.”
His first message and his simple way of being – “Good evening!” ‘Good evening!” conquered the Square and reassured Romans, as this son of Italian immigrants spoke the language of their diocese. And the first thing he asked was a prayer for the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: the new Bishop of Rome prayed with the jubilant crowd an Our Father and a Hail Mary, and a Glory be to the Father for Benedict XVI. He marked his will for continuity.
His episcopal motto, stressing God’s mercy in act, would be his papal motto: “Miserando atque eligendo” [“Lowly but Chosen” literally “Having mercy by choosing him”]. This quote comes from the Homilies of Bede the Venerable. Commenting on the evangelical account of Saint Matthew’s vocation, he wrote: “When Jesus saw a publican and, as He looked at him having mercy on him and choosing him, He said to him: “Follow me” (“Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendoo vidit, ait illi, Sequere me”). It is a Reading of the Liturgy of the Hours on the day of Saint Matthew. The Pope confided that he heard God’s call on this feast, September 21, 1953: he was 16. He often meditated on Christ’s gaze, which pauses on each one with mercy and calls him.
One understands why the Pope also speaks of the experience when he engages the Church in the preparation of the Synod of Bishops of 2018 on young people and vocations: to trace a path of discernment for young people so that Christ’s call – whatever its incarnation – matures into a solid Christian vocation.
The First Programmatic Words
But there are other programmatic messages in the Pope’s first words. Let us re-read them, stressing one word or another. The Argentine Cardinal became Bishop of Rome: “You know that the task of the Conclave is to give a Bishop to Rome. It seems good to me that my brother Cardinals went to seek him almost to the end of the world . . . But we are there . . . I thank you for your reception. The diocesan community of Rome has its Bishop: thank you!”
First act: we said it, a prayer of the Bishop with the people of God: “And first of all, I would like to pray for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us all pray together for him, may the Lord bless him and the Virgin protect him.
The Pope then used what would be a leit-motiv of the pontificate, the image of the path, of the route to follow together, with another theme, that of charity – spelled out in confidence, love and fraternity – and a third that of evangelization: “And now, let us begin this path: the Bishop and the people — this path of the Church of Rome, which is the one that presides over all the Churches in charity – a path of fraternity, of love, and of trust among us. Let us always pray for ourselves, for one another. Let us pray for the whole world so that great fraternity takes place. I hope that this path, which we begin today and along which I will be aided by my Cardinal Vicar present here, is fruitful for the evangelization of this very beautiful city!”
And then Pope Francis, who does not cease to commend himself to the faithful’s prayer, began by that; bowing, he asked the assembled crowd to pray for him, and this novel attitude also established a bond between the Pope and the crowds, in silence: “And now I would like to give the blessing, but before, before, I ask you for a favor: before the Bishop blesses the people, I ask you to pray to the Lord to bless me: the prayer of the people, asking a Blessing for their Bishop. Let’s do this prayer in silence over me.”
Cardinal Tauran then announced the “Ubi et Orbi” blessing, which conferred a plenary indulgence, with the usual conditions established by the Church. As a pedagogue, the Pope introduced the Latin prayer with these words in Italian: “Now I am going to give to you and to the whole world, <and> to all men and women of good will, the blessing.”
And also in a spontaneous and novel way, the Pope took the floor again after the Blessing, as if brimming with gratitude. He also announced that he would go the following day to pray to the Virgin Mary to entrust his pontificate to her, and this would be his first visit to Saint Mary Major: “Brothers and sisters, I leave you. A big thank you for your reception. Pray for me and see you soon! We will see one another again soon: tomorrow I want to go to pray to the Virgin, that she may protect the whole of Rome. Good night and have a good rest!”
A step of the Bishop and of the people of God in prayer, charity, and trust to build fraternity in the whole world, under the gaze of the Virgin Mary, here are some powerful lines, which have not ceased to be embodied during these four first years of the pontificate.
Someone presented right away what Jean-Louis de la Vaissiere was able to write in his recent book ”Francis in the Storm” (Salvador, 2017): “The Argentine Pope, perfectly faithful to the dogmas, has let fresh air enter the Church and attempts to carry out all that of the Council that has not been totally implemented. He preaches by example and by gestures more than by words; he brings a formidable message of hope, that of a Church engaged for the poor, in the battle for life of more than seven billion human beings.”
The Crystalizing of the Pre-Conclave
One would know later that his intervention at the time of the “Pre-Conclave” – 161 interventions of Cardinals during ten “Congregations,” which gathered Cardinal Electors and Non-Electors before the entry of Electors in Conclave – was very noted and made the votes for his name crystalize. The Cardinal Archbishop – today Emeritus – of Havana, Jaime Ortega, then asked Cardinal Bergoglio if he could read again what he had said. Cardinal Bergoglio then drew up for him a short text from his notes. After the election, the Cuban Cardinal asked the Pope for permission to publish it, which was accorded him. We translated it on March 27, 2013.
For Cardinal Ortega it was a “masterful, perspicacious, captivating and genuine address,” in four points, reflecting a diagnosis on the situation of the Church.
His courage, his zeal for evangelization; he affirmed that “the Church must leave everything and turn to the peripheries,” not only the geographic, but also the human and existential; she must go to the littlest, approach persons where sin, grief, injustice and ignorance is manifested.
The sicknesses of the Church when she does not evangelize, acts in a way of self-reference” and a certain “theological narcissism,” a look that distances her from the world and that makes her “pretend to have Jesus Christ for herself, without having Him go outside.”
The discernment between “an evangelizing Church that sows “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans” and the worldly Church that lives turned in on herself and for herself” brings “ a clarification on the possible changes and reforms that must be made for the salvation of souls.”
Last point: “Thinking of the next Pope, a man is needed that, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to come out of herself towards the existential peripheries of humanity, so that she becomes fruitful Mother of the “sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” “See the first title found: Evangelii Gaudium.” It is a gift that knocks: the joy of Pope Francis.
See the program adopted by the Cardinal Electors on choosing Jorge Mario Bergoglio. And this reform, he would undertake under the sign of mercy, creating the surprise of the Extraordinary Jubilee, as spiritual father: did he not in some way allow the whole Church – and the world – to have this fundamental experience of mercy that marked his vocation, accompanied him in the storms of history, and is inscribed in his motto as an anchor of hope? So that each Christian – and especially young people in the perspective of the Synod of 2018 – can in turn become “merciful” there where they live the everyday. And this path of mercy and evangelization passes also through the papal journeys, one of which is the trip to Fatima next May, for the centenary of the apparitions.
His secret? It seems that he discloses it in a tweet posted on his account @Pontifex-fr this March 13, 2017, confidence in the Holy Spirit and listening to the Word: “The Holy Spirit guides us on the true path of conversion, to discover the gift of the Word of God.” And on Instagram, the Pope requests: “Please, continue to pray for me.”