Pope Francis is a pontiff of firsts—-the first Jesuit, the first Francis (of Assisi, not the Jesuit Francis Xavier), and the first pope from the New World, and indeed from a nation encircled by the global south. We can in one sense call him the first American pope. While not from a nation of establishment Christianity—-Italy, Spain, France, and the like—-the new pope’s native Argentina is perhaps just one, not two, steps away from them, the country’s culture possessing by far the most European flavor among South American states.
The Church confounded media narratives by electing him, and the crowd in St. Peter’s Square this evening was electrified to see the fumata was white (it initially looked black) after just a day and a half of conclave deliberations. Pope Francis made an incredible first impression. A dark horse prospect and unknown to many in the crowd, more than a few were struck by his statuesque pose after emerging on the balcony above us. A few waves to the crowd at first, then stillness. One can only imagine Francis spent these first few moments in in prayer.
Unlike the public greetings the past several popes have delivered, Pope Francis conducted his appearance as something close to a liturgy. As much as a new pope can do, he drew himself little attention, wasting not a moment before asking those assembled to pray the Lord’s Prayer, a Hail Mary, and a Gloria for the emeritus pontiff, Benedict XVI. The same sense of conscientious attention accompanied his granting of a papal indulgence.
His extemporaneous Italian impressed Roman natives, at least a few of whom shouted ” che bell’Italiano !” at his opening phrases. Those words, one should note, were as serene and tranquil—-even easygoing—-as might ever be expected of a man just elected pope. The papal office has evidently not caused him to forget he is a pastor.
Then came the entirely unexpected. Still observing a liturgical form of sorts, Francis bowed to the crowd and asked for our prayers for him in silence. The requested silence came immediately—-a stunning, astounding silence from the deafening shouts just moments before. Everyone hushed without exception, most certainly taken aback by the gesture. “I came not to be served, but to serve,” as the scripture goes.
Many possibilities await the new pope, from revival of the Jesuit order’s original luster to a bolstering of Christian renewal in its most rapidly expanding regions—-the lands south of the equator far removed from western Europe.
Pope Francis’ parting words came quickly, his appearance being surprisingly brief in retrospect. “Brothers and sisters, I will be leaving. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and we will see one another soon. Tomorrow I want to go and pray to the Madonna that she may protect Rome. Good night and rest well.”
Already, then, Pope Francis is following the lead Pope Benedict XVI established as he departed office. Just a few short weeks ago at his last public Mass, then Pope Benedict quieted the applauding crowd to a whisper, saying, “Thank you, now let us return to prayer.” Just as Benedict resolved to spend the rest of his life in a return to prayer and contemplation, Pope Francis has begun his pontificate with an undeniable focus on prayer—-for his predecessor, for the guardianship of the Church, and most strikingly, in his acknowledgement of dependence on the Christian faithful’s prayers for him.