It was with shocked excitement that I took a moment to register the name of the new Holy Father. This wasn’t who we were expecting; none of my friends or coworkers had mentioned his name as a possible contender for the office. But there he was, looking slightly shell-shocked, Pope Francis: the first Jesuit Pope, the first Latin American Pope and the first Pope to choose the name “Francis.”
Along with my joy that we have a new Pontiff, I also felt relief that the Conclave was over. While exciting in some ways, I grew tired of “special interest groups” within the Church promoting their cause as the most important. Some wanted another Pope who would promote the traditional Latin Mass, others were most concerned with social justice issues, still others with “modernizing” the Church. Understandably, each thought that some papabili were more suited to the way they saw the papacy than others.
I had hoped that the Church as a whole could rejoice at the election, prompted by the Holy Spirit, of a new Holy Father. I thought that for a while at least, we could be united together with an awe at the way that the Lord has continued to fulfill his promise to “be with you always even until the end of an age” and that the “gates of hell would not prevail” against the Church built on the rock of St. Peter.
I won’t hesitate to admit that I’m a bit scandalized that not only the secular media, but also many Catholics, of all stripes, immediately sought to measure Pope Francis against their own goals for the papacy. There may come a time where we can rightly critique what Pope Francis is or is not doing as the Vicar of Christ on earth, but it is not the first week of his pontificate!
The truth is, we don’t know what sort of Pope he will be or what decisions he’ll make. Sure, we have some hints due to his time as Cardinal in Argentina. But the issues and decisions that Popes are known for later are often not anticipated. Who could have foreseen that Pope John Paul II would help bring about the fall of Communism in Poland? Those who called Cardinal Ratzinger “God’s Rottweiler” would never have predicted the love and affection poured out on him by so many around the world at the time of his resignation. It is clear that Pope Francis has a heart for the poor, for simplicity and for focusing on the importance of each person encountering the Lord as a disciple. How those qualities will play out in his pontificate is unknown except to God.
Do we truly believe that the Conclave is guided by the Holy Spirit, or is it just another political election to us? Sadly, it seems that if my “candidate” becomes Pope, then I see it as the will of God, but if another is selected then suddenly I’m willing to forget about the Holy Spirit’s role. In other words, with this attitude, I am not truly affirming the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, but rather seeing him as a tool to accomplish things that I place the most value on.
Pope Francis himself makes the distinction about the unique character of the Church from other earthly enterprises. Addressing media on Wednesday, March 13, the new Holy Father explained, “The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the People of God, the Holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity.” Yes! While the Church, like any institution, has its failings, the difference is that the Lord is present, giving us the grace to truly encounter Him.
Is it possible that the Lord knows what is best for us and for the Church better than we do? Of course. To quote the Psalms, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8). Or, to quote a song I’ve had in my head all week, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find You get what you need.” When I heard the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio, I had little idea of who he was, but because I believe in the Lord’s loving care for His Church, I am fully ready to believe that he may be exactly the shepherd that the Church needs right now.
So what should our reaction be for now? Regardless of our preconceptions of Pope Francis, our first action should be the one he asked of us upon being elected. We should pray for him. As he said in his first address as pontiff, “I ask you to pray to the Lord that He bless me…the prayer of the people for a blessing upon their bishop.” Let us ask the Lord daily to give our new Holy Father the grace he requires to be the Pontiff the Church needs, not just the one we want.