It has been a whole year since Pope Francis was elected. What a year it has been. Before the conclave, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not well known outside of Argentina. But from the moment he stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis, greeting the world with a simple “Buonasera (Good evening),” he has captured the hearts, imagination and vision of growing multitudes of people.
Recently featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, he was also named Time magazine’s "Person of the Year," and 3 million people came out to celebrate Mass with him at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last year. Everywhere we turn, people are talking about Pope Francis. And everywhere I have gone in the past year, people have asked: “Who is this man? Why is he so popular?”
To be sure, he has an engaging personality, but it is far more than that. To fully understand the reason for the excitement, we should consider exactly when the cheering began — it was when the white smoke appeared from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Long before anyone even knew who the pope would be, there was a frenzy of excitement in St. Peter’s Square as people shouted “Viva il Papa! (Long live the Pope!)” In fact, even before then, there was enthusiastic anticipation, with some 5,500 journalists coming to Rome for the conclave and people across the globe following on television and the Internet.
All of this highlights people’s understanding of the pope’s importance. He is the living continuity with St. Peter and, therefore, with Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The election of this new pope, the 265th successor to Peter, was a catalyst for a fresh appreciation of the hope the Gospel offers.
In the face of so many challenges today, there is an underlying hunger for more than what our materialistic, commercialized society offers. There is a thirst and longing in people’s hearts for the transcendent, for a love that does not disappoint, for mercy and justice.
It is in this atmosphere that people are touched by the joy and humble simplicity of Pope Francis — a radiant smile, a request for prayer to begin his papacy, candidly confessing that he is a sinner in need of redemption, as we all are. More than this, though, people are encouraged by his pastoral concern. Pope Francis walks and talks, lives and speaks the love of a Lord who is rich in kindness and mercy and in whom all things can be made new, especially our own lives.
Dubbed “the Pope of Mercy” throughout this first year of his pontificate, Francis has appealed to our consciences, calling our attention to those on the margins of life, the poor, the vulnerable and the outcast. Again and again, we hear him say to “go out” to others and meet the needs and bind the wounds which disfigure the face of humanity, as he said in his recent Lenten message, where he challenges us “to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”
What Francis brings is not change or new teaching; rather, he is revitalizing how one lives the Good News. What the Pope is doing is what we in the Catholic Church have come to know as the “New Evangelization” — bringing fresh vigor to the perennial message of the Gospel, so as to reach the hearts of people today, particularly those who have been disaffected with the Church. He is meeting folks where they are, in the present conditions of their lives, so that this ever-ancient invitation to liberating truth and saving love is ever new.
By what he does and how he does it, by what he says and how he says it, Pope Francis is offering a new moment of grace, outreach and renewal, not only for Catholics, but our entire human family, each of us a precious child of God. As we celebrate this first anniversary, we can do more than simply applaud and marvel at the phenomenon that is Pope Francis. Let us take his words to heart and go out to care for one another, bringing mercy and hope and the joy of being loved.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington.