VATICAN CITY—Perhaps because it had rained hard at twilight, the smoke that emitted from the Sistine Chapel chimney looked deceptively sooty, making everyone think that the fifth ballot had again been a failure.
But upon one’s closer look, the smoke appeared white, breaking through the fog and smoke of dense Roman weather. Someone screamed it was really white, and a new pope had finally been elected, so the throng of humanity that had sought cover in the awnings of cafés, souvenir shops and other shelters around St. Peter’s Square, rushed out and filled the embrace of Bernini’s enfolding columns.
It was pandemonium.
“Habemus Papam!” announced French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran from the papal loggia or balcony.
When he announced the identity of the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, everyone was confused: his name had not appeared on the list of papabili or papal contenders.
And given the first syllable of his surname, some thought that it was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, who had been elected pope.
But the new pope was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Tauran announced that he had taken on a most unlikely papal name: Francis.
Finally appearing on the loggia, he seemed in a frozen stance for some seconds, and the crowd stood, as if frozen as well, waiting for his first words. He seemed stunned by the sight of the horizon of humanity before him, but when he managed to break out of the stupor, he spoke in gentle Italian with a slight Spanish accent—a clearer Italian than that of Benedict XVI, a German.
To his left in the loggia was Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, who, though already 78 and retired, was still eligible to take part in a papal conclave. It was Hummes, his seatmate in the conclave, who embraced him after he won two-thirds of the vote, and whispered to him, “Remember the poor.”
Because poverty was the special charism of Saint Francis of Assisi, and perhaps too because Hummes is a Franciscan, the Jesuit Bergoglio took on the unlikely papal name of Francis.
The first pope in more than 150 years to come from a religious order had taken on the name of a founder of the mendicant religious movement of the Medieval Ages. Although there had been Franciscan popes, no pope had taken the name of Francis.
Love at first sight
The surprising adoption of a name that hadn’t graced papal annals before March 13 was a fitting culmination to a month of shocks and gasps set off on Feb. 11 when Pope Benedict XVI announced he was renouncing the papacy because of old age.
Suddenly, the papacy became the center of the world. At least it became the center of the media world: more than 6,000 press men sought Holy See accreditation to cover the papal conclave and the events surrounding it.
Despite the nearly manic-obsessive coverage of the press, Fr. Erwin Balagapo, a Filipino priest of the Archdiocese of Palo, Leyte, who is taking post-doctoral studies at the Angelicum of the Dominicans in Rome, said the media could not fully generate the excitement and experience of that crucial moment when the new pope was announced.
With fellow Filipino priests studying in other Roman pontifical institutes, he waited for the conclave results on the piazza, and when the hour finally came, he used his iPhone camera to capture the sight and sounds of the pandemonium.
He uploaded everything on the Internet, giving the visitor a more telling recording of the first frantic, then solemn, encounter between humanity and heaven, when the faithful and the new Vicar of Christ first laid eyes on each other.
It was love at first sight.
Like most Italian and Filipino Catholics, Father Erwin can’t seem to have enough of Francis. He has voraciously read up on the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Italian magazines that ran special editions on the man from Buenos Aires. He tells the stories he has read to anyone who cares to listen, especially those who don’t know Italian but are eager to know more about the man who, from nowhere, became pope.
It turns out that, for all the hullabaloo about the papacy having supposedly loosened itself from the centuries-old stranglehold by the Italians—after Polish Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978 and the German Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI in 2005—the election of the Latin American Bergoglio is an Italian restoration of the papacy, after all.
Father Erwin said the Pope’s family hails from Turin, and as a priest and later, archbishop, he would visit relatives there and stay with them. According to his cousins interviewed by Italian magazines, he would help in the housework—cooking in the kitchen and doing the laundry—over their protestations and despite the Italian overkill VIP treatment of priests. (They’re much like we Filipinos who love to pamper our priests.)
Father Erwin said Pope Francis’ humility, simplicity and paternal kindness remind him of his former boss in Palo, Leyte, Msgr. Jose Palma, now archbishop of Cebu.
It was Palma who sent Father Erwin to Rome for further studies, having himself acquired his doctorate in theology at the Angelicum.
So last March 19, the inizio or papal investiture of Francis, which coincided with the solemnity or feast of St. Joseph, Father Erwin sent a package of Italian magazines to Palma for him to read all about the new pope. They were also birthday gifts to the Cebu prelate.
Palma was named by his parents after the humble foster father of the Church, and the new pope said he found it of “significant coincidence” that his investiture was taking place on “the name-day of my venerable predecessor,” Joseph Ratzinger.
“We are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” Pope Francis said of the Pope Emeritus.
Filipino papal contender
“I praise God for the workings of the Holy Spirit,” texted Palma, who’s also president of the Philippine episcopal conference. “There is hope for the Church.”
Of course, like most Filipinos, Palma eagerly awaited the results of the conclave, where Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle had been bruited about as a contender.
But Tagle, as expected, was a long shot for the papacy. According to Inside the Vatican, an Italian investigative publication, the conclave was a fight between the Latin Americans and the Italians.
Apparently, the Latin Americans had determined early on that they would solidly vote for Bergoglio to press the claim of the New World, especially the Americas, on the papacy, and to forestall the candidacy of Archbishop Scola of Milan, around whom the far more numerous Italian cardinals were expected to rally.
The Latin American strategy worked.
All this insider information should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because of the vow of secrecy cardinals had taken during the conclave. In the 2005 conclave, it was bruited about that Bergoglio was runner-up to Ratzinger, but when asked to confirm this, Cebu Cardinal Emeritus Ricardo Vidal, who had taken part in the voting, merely shrugged—“I don’t know where they get these reports!”
Tagle said the cardinals took the vow of secrecy before, during and after every balloting, so that he had nearly memorized it.
“It was really there to purify one’s intention,” he explained, “so that everybody would cooperate with the Holy Spirit.”
When asked by a priest at the Collegio Filipino if it was true he was “third runner-up,” Tagle laughed and asked back, “Saan mo naman nakuha ‘yun?” (Where did you source that?)
But if a Filipino can’t be pope, Filipinos still have their way with popes and continue their romance with the papacy.
Kissing the pope
Like other Filipino priests studying in Rome, Father Erwin treasures his encounters with the popes, especially the charismatic John Paul II whose drawing power continues to be mined by souvenir traders. They have put his photogenic image on just about any imaginable souvenir item.
In the Jubilee year of 1999, Father Erwin helped give confessions to prepare the faithful for the celebration. Having also successfully defended his doctoral dissertation and set to go home, he was summoned to an audience with Pope John Paul II. The Pope wanted to express his gratitude to all the priests who helped give confessions at St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Holy Father, this may be the last time that I am going to meet you this close,” he said. “Can I make a request?”
The Pope nodded.
“Can I kiss you?”
He heard a European cardinal guffaw behind him, but the Pope obliged. Father Erwin got his kiss, and to this day, he continues to be teased by macho Filipino priests for having asked to kiss the Holy Father.
For John Paul II to elicit laughter, either wittingly or unwittingly, may be due to his charisma and simplicity.
Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, during one of the Philippine bishops’ traditional ad limina visits, was a recipient of the Pope’s innocent humor. It was toward the latter part of his pontificate and Gutierrez poignantly told him that this could be their last meeting.
Although bent with age, sickness and the labors of the Petrine office, the Pope asked him, “Why? Are you sick?”
Benedict might not have been as charismatic as John Paul, but he was known for his kindness and humility, as well. He would visit a pub unobtrusively and, like a true Bavarian, would enjoy a mug of beer which the flattered pub owner was only too happy to serve him for free.
Contrary to media hype that he wore red Prada papal shoes (they were gifts from the famous Italian fashion house), he, in fact, had his shoes made by a Latin American cobbler. No, the Pope, unlike the devil, doesn’t wear Prada all the time.
And like Saint Francis, Benedict is kind to animals and God’s creations, especially cats. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was known to have fed stray cats. And as Pope, he would be carried by the papal limousine to his appointments with a cat or two onboard.
The new Pope perhaps combines John Paul’s charisma and Benedict’s scholarship. (Bergoglio was a professor before he became archbishop.)
But although not as erudite as either the Thomist philosopher Wojtyla or the Augustinian theologian Ratzinger, perhaps the greatest theologian of popes in more than a century, Bergoglio has enough academic cache to carry his papacy through the doctrinal divisions that have characterized the Church since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which, incidentally, is marking its 50th anniversary now up to 2015.
In any case, Pope Francis has indicated that his conservatism on sexual morality and his doctrinal correctness dovetail with those of his more erudite predecessors.
His simplicity and humility—he called for the protection of the poor and the environment in his installation homily and will wash the feet of juvenile prisoners this Holy Week—should show that he will provide a pastoral polish to the conservative stance of the Church on sexual morality and modernity, while highlighting social activism as the Church’s critique against the depredations of liberal capitalism.
Two popes to tango
However, the most pressing issue now for Francis is not the future of the Church but how to conduct the papacy in an unprecedented situation when there are, in a manner of speaking, two popes.
But in a talk at the Collegio Filipino, Fr. Paul O’Callaghan, a former dean of theology of Santa Croce, the Opus Dei’s pontifical institute in Rome, brushed this aside: “We don’t have a situation of two popes: When Pope Benedict renounced the chair of Peter, it was as if he had died,” the Irish theologian said quite severely.
Earlier, Father O’Callaghan might have unwittingly raised concern about the new pope’s age (76) when he explained what made Benedict resign. He said it’s not alone the rules that have changed, it’s also the game: “While before it was lawn tennis, now it’s ping-pong!”
How Francis would cope with the rigors of the Petrine office at 76, when the same office had so weighed down Benedict, who came to it at 78, should be cause for concern of all Catholics.
In the meantime, the two popes would have to coexist, a situation that could find no parallelism in recent history.
Already, despite his retirement to a life of prayer, Benedict is starting to be hounded by the paparazzi. A clandestine camera obtained a shot of him in his temporary retirement in the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, walking around the gardens prayerfully, with a baseball cap to shield himself from the sun.
But if John Paul had mastery of the stage and Benedict had the Bavarian zest for life, Francis would have enough humor and deep spirituality to carry him through. Already the talk is that like any Argentinian, he loves to tango.
Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican Merceditas Tuazon was teased by Cardinals Vidal and Gaudencio Rosales that she could soon have an opportunity to partner with the Pope on the ballroom floor. She said she’s open to it because, like everything else about Rome and its primary resident, that’s part of la dolce vita.