Twelve months ago today, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a low profile archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepped out onto the Loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica to greet the thousands gathered in the square as the newly elected bishop of Rome.
Elected just two weeks after the historic resignation of Benedict the XVI, the Argentinian cardinal – taking the name of Francis – became the first pope to hail from the Americas.
Yet Cardinal Bergoglio was not considered “papabile”; 76 years old at the time of his election, the Jesuit prelate was thought to be too old to be elected pope.
“This was where the brave decision of Pope Benedict to resign was very important because it meant that age didn’t come into it,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in an interview with ZENIT. “For instance, if Pope Francis at some time, in years to come, felt his health wouldn’t do the job as it were, then he, too, could retire from the job.”
Despite being largely unknown at the time of his election, Pope Francis has received a warm welcome from Catholics and non-Catholics alike in what many have described as the “Pope Francis effect”.
The benefits of this “Pope Francis Effect,” Cardinal O’Connor explained, is that “it will help bishops to feel ‘freer’ in being evangelical, freer in the public forum to pronounce the values and the truths of the Gospel. And [they] won’t be afraid to take risks, if they are genuinely for the good of the Gospel.”
“Pope Francis is setting up structures which, I think, if he were to go and die, the actual collegial character which he’s trying to encourage in the Church here in Rome, but especially in the worldwide Church, will continue.”
Although there may be positive aspects to the “Pope Francis Effect,” Sean Patrick Lovett, director of Vatican Radio’s English language program, warns against using the term lightly.
“I’m wary of anything that has the word ‘effect’ suffix to it,” he told ZENIT, “because it implies transience. It implies some kind of superficiality, like the word ‘special’ effects. It’s something which is there, then it’s gone. It’s there to distract your attention, in a sense. So, I’m wary about applying that term to any papacy, and to any person. And particularly, to this papacy, and to this person.”
He added: “Certainly, when I look in Saint Peter’s Square during a Sunday Angelus, or a Wednesday general audience, certainly when I read how the media treats him with such awe and admiration, I’m delighted, I’m thrilled as a Catholic. My chest swells with pride because he’s my Pope, and when I travel around the world and people hear where I come from and who I am and they pat me on the back and tell me how ‘cool’ my pope is. Of course, it makes me feel good.”
However, Lovett explained, much of this “coolness” is centered around superficial aspects of his papacy, such as the shoes he wears, the car he drives, or where he lives.
“I don’t think that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I think there’s much more substance there that perhaps we’re missing because some of us are allowing ourselves to become distracted by the effect, and not paying enough attention to the substance.”
In the twelve months since his election to the papacy, one of the predominant themes of Francis is that of renewal.
“He now has a very clear profile,” said newly-elected Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster. “He is a Pope of radical renewal. So he wants at every step to take us back to the roots of our life of faith which is essentially the gift of God, essentially the call to discipleship, to be with Christ, to be in his company day by day, and the call to be missionary.”
Cardinal Nichols explained that this sense of renewal is largely centered on the dignity of the human person. “It’s a renewal that he’s looking for, springs of joy, hope and vitality.”
“It doesn’t matter if your face is deformed, or your intellectual ability isn’t of the highest degree or if you have other physical limitations. He’s saying: ‘No, you’re precious, you have a dignity that comes from God, and an eternal destiny.’
“So I think it’s those things: it’s radical renewal and it’s invigorating.”