Catholics around the world waited with bated breath as white smoke poured from the Sistine Chapel last Wednesday afternoon. St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City flooded with people and news stations hoping to witness this historical event in the church’s history. Across the globe, people were glued to their TV screens for the next hour as they anticipated the name of the person who was to be the new leader of their church.
Little did they know how historical the announcement that followed the cascade of white smoke would be; on Wednesday, March 13, a little more than 24 hours after conclave had begun, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis.
The reaction across John Carroll University’s campus was one of excitement, as students, faculty and staff watched the news unfold. Senior theology and religious studies major Jillian Dunn was among a number of students gathered in the Campus Ministry Conference Room as the announcement was made.
“When the white smoke came, it was so thrilling,” she said. “To be in community with the students gathered and watching it together was moving. It was one of those days you were proud to be Catholic and proud of the church to be moving in this new trajectory.”
This particular election to the papacy was stunning, as Bergoglio was not anticipated as a frontrunner going into the election; he was 76, and many cardinals were looking for a younger candidate not older than 70. The National Catholic Reporter interviewed Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who said, “I think it all came together in an extraordinary fashion. I believe the Holy Spirit makes clear which way we should go. And we went that way very quickly.”
But his age isn’t the only thing that shocked Catholics worldwide. Pope Francis will be the first Jesuit elected as pontiff as well as the first-ever Latin American pope. The Rev. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest and author, commented, “The best way to sum up Jesuit spirituality may be the shorthand ‘finding God in all things.’ We’re also encouraged to be ‘contemplatives in action,’ and we’re meant to be available, free enough to go wherever we are most needed.”
JCU President, the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J., echoed this sentiment as he celebrated the Pope’s election at Mass held in St. Francis Chapel Thursday afternoon. In his homily, Niehoff said, “We celebrate the new pope, and we celebrate his experience, but we celebrate most of all that he has experienced the spiritual exercises and the call of the Gospel; that’s our call too.”
His appointment as the first Latin American pope is equally significant. As a man who has devoted his life to social justice outreach, he served the people of Buenos Aires for years living with and among them and denying many of the luxuries that previous cardinals enjoyed. Senior Jonathan Ruano said, “As a Latino, I am unbelievably joyful for this new pontiff. His name ‘Francis’ gives an air of one who cares for the poor and neglected. We find the poor and neglected in all parts of the world including Latin America. To have a pope come from a geographic region that holds 46 percent of Catholics means that he will be knowledgeable of the needs of the majority of Catholics.”
In taking the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, he draws connections to a saint who was called to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil.
The Washington Post reported that when asked why he chose Francis, he responded that as his selection became more likely, his friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, embraced him and said, “Don’t forget the poor.” So the new pope said “he took the name of St. Francis of Assisi to show ‘how I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.’”
“Pope Francis is not a pope who regulates the faith but a pope who practices and facilitates the faith,” said Dunn.
While the new pope has come to be renowned for his humility and commitment to the poor, there are underpinnings of sweeping the church. This change does not come in the form of doctrine or law, but as Ruano predicts, “What will change is where the church places its emphasis, and that will be social justice.”
Francis has brought an image of simplicity to the papacy never before seen to this extent by his predecessors. According to Dunn, “While his election is celebratory, it’s also a challenge to us. For cardinals, bishops and lay Catholics alike who have lived comfortable lifestyles, we now have a leader who has chosen a simple lifestyle working in communion with the poor,” Dunn said. “It challenges us as to what type of life we are now called to live.”