A year ago yesterday I was attending a meeting at our diocesan pastoral center when the news came that white smoke had been seen coming from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican where the world's cardinals had met in conclave to select a successor to the retired Pope Benedict XVI. In a world full of technological advances: computers, I-pads, smart phones, etc., the ancient tradition of the Roman Church was being fulfilled as the ballots that elected a new pope were burned bringing forth the white smoke.
A television had been set up in an adjacent meeting room and we all flocked to hear the announcement of the new pope. The cardinal who would announce this came to the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square where thousands had gathered to receive the news. Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam! I announce to you great joy; we have a pope! Then we heard the name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Who? Then we heard that the first pope from the Americas had been elected, the archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Well known in the southern hemisphere but not that well known here in the U.S.
Shortly thereafter, the curtains on the balcony parted again and we saw dressed in a simple white cassock a man who would speak his first words to the world as pope: Fratelli e sorelli, buona sera. The simple greeting: Brothers and sisters, good evening. Shortly thereafter the Holy Father would bow before the assembled crowd in the square and ask for their prayers. Thus began the pontificate of Pope Francis and the world fell in love with him.
Recently the pope said that it was disconcerting to him that he seemed to have taken on the role of a superstar (even a famous rock magazine featured him on one of their covers). He pointed out that he was a normal person and wanted to be seen as such. I believe it is that normality that has endeared him to the world, not only of the faithful but others as well.
He reaches out to the world and engages those around him. He is concerned with the person and while he has not shied away from speaking about world issues, he always reminds us that we must be there for others, particularly the poor and the disenfranchised of our society. Was this not what Jesus did when he was among us? He would challenge the world of his time but he was always there to reach out and touch the sinner, the sick and the less fortunate. This is the challenge we face in our own time and as we journey through another period of Lent we are reminded by the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that it is others that we must seek out and be there for.
But Pope Francis wants us to realize that doing all this should be joyful. In the opening words of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he says: The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus....With Christ joy is constantly born anew....I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Lent is the time for this encounter and we should take the opportunity to renew our own encounters with Jesus through prayer and reconciliation. The pope has asked for our prayers. Let us pray for this good and humble servant of Christ that he may continue in good health and have the strength needed to lead God's people at this time in our world. Happy anniversary, Holy Father; our prayers are with you.