“Francis and the Seagull” (Excerpt from Michel Cool’s Francis, a New World Pope)

Francis, a New World Pope
Francis, a New World Pope

Michel Cool is a French journalist who specializes in religious affairs. In the following excerpts from his new book Francis, a New World Pope, he describes Francis’s first minutes as pope and a few of ways in which Francis’s election was historic.

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Francis and the Seagull

Wednesday, March 13, 2013: It’s raining on Rome. Cameramen from TV stations around the world have trained their lenses on the Sistine Chapel’s silent chimney. They are being entertained by a seagull’s unexpected choreography. The incongruous bird is strolling across the roof of the sacred edifice, indifferent to the surrounding excitement. No one will ever know if the bird is called Jonathan, like the hero of the book from the 1970s. But this seafaring, well-traveled bird will go down in history. Because whether it’s just a coincidence, or more likely, a sign from God, didn’t its appearance foretell the election of a pope who sailed the seas to come here, to the banks of the Tiber River, to pilot the bark of the Church?

A throng of some 100,000 people is standing patiently on the cobblestones of Saint Peter’s Square. They stare at the sky, hoping for a wisp of white smoke. Their patience will not be in vain. Just before 7 p.m., thick curls of white smoke rise up from the copper chimney. A few long minutes later, the cardinal-deacon, Frenchman Jean-Louis Tauran, appears on the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to announce the joyful news: “Habemus papam!” Still speaking Latin, he reveals the identity of the chosen one. After a moment of hesitation, as though the crowd is stunned by what it has just heard, a huge shout rises up. The clamor soon becomes an acclamation of joy, a surge of jubilation. The seagull has disappeared from television screens. It has flown away, we know not where, taking the mystery of its presence on this historic evening with it.

Francis! The name of the man in white who is stepping onto Saint Peter’s benediction loggia is Francis, like the saint from Assisi. And there is yet another surprise on top of that first one: he has forgone the scarlet mozzetta the pontiff traditionally wears on his shoulders. In a slow, deep voice, he starts by wishing everyone “Good evening,” raising his hand to greet the crowd who has come to welcome him. “Dear brothers, dear sisters,” he begins, in Italian, warmly addressing the enthusiastic pilgrims waving signs and banners to glorify the Holy Father.

His face is filled with emotion, but at peace, his arms at his side, his attitude during his first appearance as pope displays a key feature of his personality: his no-frills side. “It seems,” he goes on with a cheerful grin, “that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get [me] . . . but here we are. . . . I thank you for your welcome.” Then he invites everyone to join him in prayer, as he offers an Our Father and a Hail Mary for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who is surely watching the scene on TV in Castel Gandolfo, to which he retired when he renounced the papacy on February 28, 2013.

Those first few words and gestures suffice to create a direct, warm contact between the new bishop of Rome and the people of his city. The bond is already palpable on Saint Peter’s Square: despite the falling darkness, the people’s faces are radiant, and their eyes sparkle like a constellation of stars. The new Vicar of Christ compares this budding relationship with the people of Rome to a journey of brotherhood, of love, and of evangelization. Then comes another exceptionally moving moment: the 265th successor to Saint Peter invites the faithful to ask for the Lord’s blessing for him. He bows down to the multitude, which prays in silence for twenty seconds or so. This is unheard of! Never in their long history have Bernini’s columns borne witness to such a profound silence, so filled with fervor and hope to greet the arrival of a Supreme Pontiff.

The Cardinals’ Historic Choice

It’s a huge surprise. This election is absolutely historic! Against all odds, and for the first time since the eighth century, a pontiff from a continent other than Europe has been elected. By placing the Argentinean archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, on Saint Peter’s throne, the 115 cardinals elected “the first pope from the Americas,” as President Barack Obama, one of the first to offer his best wishes to the new pontiff, put it. Another first, this pope could be described as “black” in a way. He belongs to the Society of Jesus, whose superior, called Father General, is also known as “the black pope” because of the black cassock he wears, as opposed to the bishop of Rome’s white tunic. So Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit pope of the Catholic Church since Saint Ignatius of Loyola founded that religious order in the sixteenth century. That’s a lot of innovation for a single seventy-six-year- old man! Yet he wasn’t even considered papabile (a possible pope) going into this conclave.

First non-European pope in thirteen centuries; first New World pope since Christopher Columbus discovered it in the fifteenth century; and finally, first-ever Jesuit pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet he was elected quickly, on only the fifth round of voting, on just the second day of the bishops’ seclusion in the Sistine Chapel. He was elected even more quickly than Paul VI, who was the frontrunner of the conclave in 1963, and his election was almost as easy as Benedict XVI’s, who had been chosen on the fourth round in 2005. For Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit himself, and director of the Holy See Press Office, the cardinal electors — with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit — showed truly bold initiative on March 13, 2013: “I was dumbfounded,” he said. “They were brave enough to look across the ocean to broaden the Church’s perspectives.”

It’s a bold choice, but it also reflects the reality of demographic changes in the Catholic world; their choice reflects the changing center of gravity in global Catholicism over the past few decades. The largest number of the faithful do in fact live in the Southern Hemisphere now, and that is where the faith still draws huge crowds into churches and pilgrimage centers. The election of a South American pope does indeed symbolize the end of the Old World’s 2,000-year hold on the See of Peter; but more than that, it is an act of recognition — recognition that, although the Church is still universal, and alive on every continent, its heart and soul are now to be found in the emerging countries of the South.

The world’s leaders grasped that instantly. Recognizing the historic dimension of the event, they reacted quickly to Pope Francis’s surprising election. Barack Obama, head of the world’s premier superpower, was one of the first to send his “warm wishes” to the new pontiff, praising him as a “champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his hope that, like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, the new pope would continue to promote interfaith dialogue. “We also share the conviction that we can only resolve the interconnected challenges of today’s world through dialogue.”

Several Latin American heads of state spoke of their people’s pride and joy that one of their own had been elected to the papacy. Even Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina, set aside her political differences with the former archbishop of Buenos Aires — who had been seen as her principal adversary — to salute the election of a fellow countryman. With an admirable sense of fair play, she wished him well with his “great responsibility toward advancing justice, equality, fraternity and peace of mankind.”

In what was perhaps an attempt to change the unfortunate impression he had made by joking about Benedict XVI’s retirement, François Hollande was one of the first European leaders to present the new Supreme Pontiff with his “most sincere wishes for the important mission that has just been confided in him.” The French president then added: “France, true to its history and to the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that found its action throughout the world, will continue the trustful dialogue it has always maintained with the Holy See, in the service of peace, justice, solidarity and human dignity.”

Among the many diplomatic telegrams sent to Pope Francis, it is worth mentioning the one from the Israeli president Shimon Peres, inviting Francis to Israel on an official visit, as well as the press release from the European Union, cosigned by the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, wishing him a “long and blessed” pontificate so that he could “defend and promote the fundamental human values of peace, solidarity and human dignity.”

Clearly, governments were not blind to the wave of hope and enthusiasm sparked by Francis’s election. An unexpected one, it must be said, foreseen neither by the specialized press nor even by Latin American public opinion. The populace there had lost faith in the chances of the “poor people’s archbishop,” as he was known in the underprivileged neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. So how did Cardinal Bergoglio leave the Sistine Chapel as the Vicar of Christ?

How indeed? Click to order Michel Cool’s Francis, a New World Pope and find out.