This week was a glorious week in my book. First....we had our first 80+ degree day which gave me every hope that spring is REALLY on it's way and.....more importantly, the Roman Catholic church welcomed a new pope.
On Wednesday March 13, 2013, thousands in St. Peters Square along with millions of people around the world watched as white smoke billowed from the chimney signaling that the conclave of cardinals had elected a new pope to lead the Roman Catholic church. It was a short voting period as he was elected on the fifth vote in a day after the voting began. There were cheers and tears....and those....were just at my house. It was an amazing day. I had friends Catholic and non-Catholic alike....texting me to make sure I had my tv on as we all waited to see the new pope make his first appearance to the world. There were questions too. I was getting questions texted to me as a couple of non-Catholic friends watched the process but did not fully understand what was going on or what this meant to the Church. It was then and there that I knew what this weeks blog would be about. The Pope!
In my life there have been six popes elected. Of those I only remember five. Of the five....the pope who has been the most influential has been Pope John Paul II. I remember the day he was elected. When the white smoke was seen by the world via tv and then we first saw Karol Józef Wojtyła for the first time appear to the world as Pope John Paul II, my mother cried. She knew nothing of this man who would lead the Church for over a quarter of a century and who would welcome many to the church and bring many back who had left the church, she just knew that his eyes were kind and that in her heart she felt a connection with this man. Apparently it was the same connection that many around the world....both Catholics and non-Catholics....felt for few could deny the work this pope did during his papacy nor what he brought to the Church as its leader.
So just who and what is a pope and what does it mean to the Catholic church. The pope is the leader of Roman Catholics around the world. The first pope was the Apostle Peter hand picked by Jesus Himself to start HIS church.....the Roman Catholic church. According to wiki answers: "The pope is appointed the task proper to the papal office. He is actually, above all, an administrator. His duties include the protection of doctrine and the sources of revelation, the mandate to advance and consolidate the Church's mission to preach to all nations, the formation of schools and seminaries for Catholic education (usually done by local bishops), the regulation of correct discipline and rubrics among the faithful and in Catholic practice, to act as spokesperson of the Church to the world, the establishment and maintenance of the college of bishops as well as properly delegating Church authority for the running of the Church, the rare use of the papal charism of infallibility in a timely manner on those issues of Faith and Morals that require final clarification, to approve official Church documents and encyclicals for the education and edification of the faithful, to denounce error and immorality in the world and cure abuses in the Church, to pray for the Church and for the salvation of souls, to live his papacy worthily by doing his priestly duties as well as those of the papal office and thereby save his own soul."
I will admit....that before I was asked questions about the election of a pope....I wasn't well versed in the papacy. Granted...I knew the basics and a little history here and there....but I didn't know enough to write a blog on it. I decided I best do some research. In the history of popes, since St. Peter took the first throne....there have been 266 popes (counting our newest pope, Pope Francis). Over the course of these many men....some have been great and holy popes who have later become saints. Some have been not so holy and not so great and there have been times when the church has been without a pope as the cardinals have been deadlocked in a vote for months and even years.
When a pope is chosen....he then chooses the name for which he will use throughout his papacy. Names are usually chosen from saints who have in some way affected their lives or from previous popes in order to keep that particular name going. There have been a great many Leo's, Gregory's and Benedicts. In my life time there has been Popes: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now....Francis. Pope John XXIII is now called Blessed which indicates that he is in the second stage of becoming a saint. He is best known for opening the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council was to bring modernism into the Catholic church. It was at this point that the Latin Mass was done away with and churches began to take a more modern approach in everything from doing away with traditional architecture to more modern societal views. TSVC caused an upheaval in the Church causing more traditional Catholics to part ways with Rome and to choose to become a part of the Pius X group which held on to both the Latin Mass and traditional Catholic beliefs. Pius X is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church.
Pope Paul VI, the first pope that I remember, concluded TSVC. Because I was very young during his papacy....I remember very little about him. After some research though....I found that a lot of Catholics were on the fence about him because of Vatican II. He was also the first pope to visit the United States.
Pope John Paul I, was the first papal election that I remember. We watched the tv waiting for the white smoke to signal a new pope. I remember the square being filled (as always) and the tv news breaking in each time black or white smoke was seen. That was when my mom said...."When a pope is chosen....for a moment in time, the whole world is Catholic." At the time, I did not understand this....but now I do. Even United States presidential elections don't hold the worlds attention like the choosing of a pope does and even the most non-religious know that whoever is chosen is not only important to Catholics....but also...to the world. Pope John Paul I was the first to have two papal names and he took them from his two predecessors. He was also the first to put a "first" after his name. I remember my mother like a lot of Catholics....wondering about this new pope and what he would bring to the Church after Vatican II. Before we even knew this man though, a little more than a month after his election.....he was gone. He had died just 33 days after his election.
Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He took his name from the man whom had no time to make his own mark. On his election....the Catholic church had a pope that in many ways would change the view of the world on Catholics and popes. During his papacy Pope JPII spent a great deal of his time traveling....something most popes never did. He was a pope of the people and instead of the people coming to him.....he went to them. He also was responsible for canonizing more saints than any of his predecessors. He touched hearts and souls up until his death and had the longest reign above Popes Pius IX and St. Peter. Since his death...he is in the process of becoming a saint being now known as Blessed.
In 2005, not just Catholics....but the world mourned as we said good bye to Pope JPII. We knew the world had lost a great pope and heaven had gained a great saint. I remember feeling that the new pope would have astronomical shoes to fill and I was not sure that anyone was worthy. When a fairly well known cardinal....Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany was elected and Pope Benedict XVI appeared to the world the first time, I was saddened that I didn't feel the same exhilaration that I had twenty six years before. I knew in my heart that the Church had the pope it needed at the moment, but........
I, like the rest of the world was stunned when Pope Benedict announced that he would be retiring just weeks ago. He was the first pope in centuries that had not died as pope but stepped down. He cited health issues as the reason for his retirement, but the world began to speculate. Many wondered if there was more to it. While many felt that this pope was a holy man others criticized him for not taking a quicker and harsher stand on priests accused of pedophilia. I honestly...respected his position as pope but never felt close to him as the leader of my church. In my humble opinion...he had never been able to fill the shoes left behind. Perhaps I was not alone and perhaps he knew this. At any rate....his retirement was the cue for the conclave of cardinals to head to St. Peter's Basilica and for a new election to begin.
When Pope Francis appeared to the world for the first time....again there were tears. He was the first Latin pope ever. He was also the first Francis. I saw a kindness in his face...maybe it was a kindness not unlike my mother saw in Pope JPII. I don't think I was alone...for the cheers seemed to be heard around the world with the tolling of the bells singing loud and clear that "We have a new pope." Yes...for a moment the whole world was Catholic.
So how is a pope chosen? There is a conclave of cardinals from all over the world who choose the pope. Cardinals in hierarchy are below the pope. They gather in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and then are sequestered until a 2/3 vote is achieved in the election of pope chosen from those gathered. All signals and media are broken from the room. There is no chance for a leak (even in this modern world) until the white smoke is seen and the new pope makes his first appearance on the balcony to the world. Sometimes the sequestering lasts days and in the past as said before, months and even years pass until a 2/3's vote has been met. Each non-successful vote is met with black smoke to announce that a pope has not yet been chosen.
A friend asked about the media stating that there were those saying that God had chosen Pope Francis. In actuality....this is probably true. While Jesus hand picked the first pope all successors have been picked by men. That being said....before voting, the cardinals spend a great deal of time in prayer...praying for the ability to choose the best person for the position of pope. So if the cardinals listen to God....God is indeed picking the pope.
Another friend asked me....why is the picking of a pope such a world wide media event? In essence....the pope has an effect world wide...because the Roman Catholic church is world wild. Popes have the ability to influence how Catholics believe and ultimately how they vote. World leaders watch to see if a pope will have more liberal or more conservative leanings and people in general watch as they are mesmerized by an event that goes back to 33A.D. Catholics watch as they realize the importance of the vote and how it will affect the church they love.
Can the church operate without a pope? Obviously it can and it has in the past for years at a time. I noticed at church though after Pope Benedict retired and before Pope Francis was elected....that where we usually pray for the pope and our bishop....we only prayed for the bishop. It was sad and it really struck my heart that something was missing. I can't imagine going for years with that feeling.
How do I feel about Pope Francis? It was a great question and one I was ever so happy to answer. I feel hopeful. There is something wonderful about him being Latin and although I have no idea which St. Francis he took his name from....I can't help but imagine it being St. Francis of Assisi one of my favorite saints whose kindness and strength of character is legendary. I am tremendously happy that Pope Francis is a champion of the unborn and the poor and it seems that he is of a conservative nature that coincides with my own.
It is my belief that Pope Francis is the pope we as Catholics and the world currently need. I hope that even at 78 years of age that he is young enough in spirit to be a leader of the church for some years to come and that the mark he leaves will be as his name sake, kind and strong. For now though....I wish Pope Francis a long and fruitful papacy and ask that the strength of God be with him. Bless you Pope Francis!