After only a few rounds of black smoke out of the little chimney in the Sistine Chapel, we have a new pope.
Like almost all Catholics, I have been following events at the Vatican pretty closely. The Church is at a fairly critical juncture, historically, what with one thing and another: rising rates of both secularism and Islam in Europe; declining birth rates among Christian populations; declining numbers of priests; scandals of the most horrific, Penn State football kind; attitudes that even many of the faithful consider antiquated; calls for female priests; calls for an end to celibacy; all the push and pull most religions face in this rapidly changing world.
And in a rapidly changing world, it is nice, even comforting, to see some of the ancient traditions being upheld in that most spectacular setting. I love the idea of communicating with smoke signals and cathedral bells in an age of, “omg! new pope! :) r u gonna wear ur manolo blahniks tonite lol?” I love seeing the cardinals in their soutanes and fascia, all of them as immaculate and elegant as the ritual of the liturgy itself, some bursting with good humor, some quiet and reserved, some stately, some dour, some looking almost mischievous in a way that makes me long to hear this man’s sermon or maybe have a whisky with that one. But all of it revolves around patterns and traditions that are two thousand years old now. I like the continuity, the sense of history. I like the quiet dignity of it all.
Of course, the media managed to, ah, shall we say, detract a little from the solemnity of the proceedings. I know they’re doing their job, and they were all excited, and many—if not most—of the lucky ones on location in Rome are Catholics themselves, but… I forget now which news channel it was, but I swear I thought I was listening to the running of the third race at Hollywood Park.
“We’ve got Scola in the lead by a comfortable two lengths, but Scherer is in second place and running well with three furlongs left, and now here comes O’Malley on the inside, moving up along the rail, he’s running neck and neck with Dolan, they’re fighting it out, but don’t rule out Ouellet in fourth place, or some of the rest of the pack because we’ve got a couple of talented dark horses back there who might just pull off an upset as they come around the final post…”
The only thing missing was a quick shot of the tote board. But, not to worry: there was one. I kid you not. There was in fact a brisk betting market on the papal election. Bookies were giving three-to-one on Scola, but the odds shifted hourly with each puff of black smoke. One wonders who made a fortune and who lost one when the name of dark horse Jorge Bergoglio was read to the world on that balcony. In case you think I’m being tacky and tasteless, or possibly making some of this up, consider this: according to several news outlets, back in 1903 the Italian government lottery allowed people to bet on when the dying Pope Leo XIII would actually hand in his dinner pail, thereby managing to varnish the height of spiritual, ecclesiastical, and historical importance with the crass gleam of secular commercialism. It does make you wonder if Jesus was laughing or crying.
But getting into the spirit of the thing, this is what I would have liked to have seen after the voting:
When white smoke finally poured out of the little stove pipe hastily erected on that ancient roof, and the bells of Saint Peter’s started to peal, I would have really liked to see the great wooden doors opening and the cardinals staggering out, disheveled, cassocks torn and dirty, abrasions on cheeks and knuckles, black eyes, a bloody nose here and there, but all of them with their arms companionably around each others shoulders, laughing or shaking their heads. I love the tradition and the ritual, but it’s always nice to see basic humanness of the church.
And while we may not have gotten any indication of human strife from the cardinals, we did get a wonderful display of humanness from our newly minted Pope Francis: his first words were to humbly ask the people to pray for him; he eschewed the traditional pomp and glamour, sticking to a plain white cassock instead of ermine robes; he kept on his plain wooden or metal (it was hard to tell) crucifix instead of the gold and emerald one usually worn by popes; he bowed to the crowd below; he prayed for Pope Emeritus Benedict; and the next morning he refused the official armored limousine and rode on the bus with the cardinals. These are all good signs at this time of spiritual, managerial, and financial turmoil in the church, but what stuck with me more than anything else was the look on his face when he first walked out. For a long time he stood very still, with his hands down by his sides, gazing down at the crowd, and what struck both me and Darleen, independently, was the concerned, slightly weary look, devoid of any trace of triumph or pleasure or even worldly happiness, as if at that moment the enormous weight of the responsibility he has assumed was finally made manifest by the hope and joy of the people below and around the world. He might have been standing among the olive tress in Gethsemane instead of the balcony at the Vatican. It was a haunting look.