When Pope Francis appeared before the vast, cheering crowd in St. Peter’s Square, and a television and Internet audience watching from around the world, his presence marked the joyful culmination of an anxious pilgrimage for Catholics eager for a Vicar of Christ.
For many weeks, Masses were celebrated and Rosaries prayed, imploring God for a new shepherd after Benedict’s resignation.
As he looked out into the crowd, Pope Francis seemed to understand that our fears would be quieted by his presence. The humble Church leader from Argentina would be the “rock” for the faithful across the world.
“As you know, cardinals were picking a bishop for Rome. It seems like my brother cardinals have picked him from the end of the world, but here we are,” the Holy Father joked.
Thus began a new pontificate with too many “firsts” to recite again. But amid the glare of television cameras, that first encounter between the new Vicar of Christ and the faithful affirmed our deep desire for a spiritual father who will love us and lead us, helping this flock embrace the charity and truth of Christ and bring those gifts to the world.
“Let’s start this path of brotherhood, love and faith among us. Let’s always pray for each other and for the whole world, for it to have a great brotherhood,” he told us that night. “I wish that this path of the Church may be fruitful for evangelization. Before the blessing, I ask you a favor: Pray to God to pray for me.”
The striking request that the faithful pray for him was followed by a series of actions that suggested this Pope would likely retain a distinctive humility, visible in his public conduct.
After the festivities, he joined the cardinals for a bus ride to pick up his luggage. The following day, he traveled to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, praying before an image of the Virgin Mary, and the Vatican confirmed that he chose not to replace his metal cross with a gold one.
During Mass with the cardinals, he spoke of the urgent need for evangelization: “We can walk and build all we want, but if we don’t confess our faith, we will become a compassionate NGO [non-governmental organization] and not the Church of the Father,” he said. “When we don’t walk, we are still, and when we don’t build, all comes down,” he added. “It is not always easy.”
Francis told them that an authentic witness to Jesus Christ yields “shake-ups,” even martyrdom. Yet the shepherds of the Church cannot retreat from the suffering that accompanies the confession of faith.
“When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross, and when we profess Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly; we are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord,” he said.
“I would like that all of us, after these days of grace, might have the courage — the courage — to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the cross of the Lord: to build the Church on the blood of the Lord, which is shed on the cross, and to profess the one glory, Christ crucified. In this way, the Church will go forward.”
Elsewhere in these pages, a brother Jesuit, Father Joseph Fessio, suggested that Pope Francis would not be a “professor pope.”
We will have further glimpses of his direction in the months ahead. But the words and actions that followed his election suggest that he will teach the faith in fresh and surprising ways, drawing the attention of Catholics and people of good will.
This new beginning offers great promise. Blessed John Paul II sought to bring the New Evangelization to the center of the Church, and Benedict XVI, with his simple yet profound teachings, reinvigorated the Church’s catechesis. Yet many Catholics are only beginning to grasp what it means to make Christ the center of our lives, to realize that an ancient faith can be reborn in our hearts with all the vitality of the “new.”
Now, Francis asks us to cast aside the false choices proffered by a world that fears the demands of a friendship with Christ and thus tries to break off pieces of the faith — an embrace of “social justice” for those in need, perhaps, while dismissing truths that demand too much personal sacrifice.
Some will express bemusement that a man of palpable love for the poor is also a great defender of the sanctity of life and marriage. Others will complain that the new Pope should occupy himself with cleaning up the Roman Curia and leave moral decisions to the individual believer and his or her conscience.
After the election, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked by television host Charlie Rose if the new Pope would embrace “reform.”
Cardinal Dolan turned the question on its head and affirmed that, as the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis would certainly call on Catholics to “reform your lives.”
Cardinal Dolan, during that interview, managed to convey the mysterious and abiding love that Catholics have for the Holy Father and the deep joy they felt as Francis took the helm of the barque of Peter.
Even when he admonishes his flock to give up old ways, we experience the love of the Bridegroom for his Bride. The election of Francis, said Cardinal Dolan, tells us that “Jesus continues to take care of his Church — he sent us another good shepherd.”