Standing in St. Peter’s Square in the daylong chilly drizzle of a Roman March, waiting for the smoke that would either release us to go home for dinner or tell us it would be a long, exciting night ahead, I had little sense of what momentous change was about to befall us.
The white smoke told the excited crowd that the suspense was about to end. The cardinals had made their selection in a relatively short time — only one vote more than it took to elect Benedict XVI — so we could be forgiven for assuming that one of the presumptive favorites — Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola perhaps — had won.
The real surprises began when Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected pope and was choosing the name Francis.
I knew of the Argentine cardinal, though I had assumed he was not a viable candidate for this conclave because of age. Many others in the square may not have known who he was, but were intrigued by the chosen name of Francis: The first pope ever to take the name of Italy’s most beloved saint. It was the first sign that this would be a pontificate of surprises.
After nearly an hour wait, the rain paused, and the new pope came out on the balcony. Will any of us who were in the square or who watched at home or at work ever forget the first glance we had of Pope Francis, with his almost expressionless face as he sized up the moment and we sized him up? It was as if both he and we were holding our breath. And then he spoke.
In that short time on the balcony, we were truly introduced to our surprising pope. His first words — “Buona sera” (good evening) — in soft but clear Italian. His humble tribute to his predecessor, leading the Roman crowd in prayer for “our bishop emeritus.” His deliberate choice not to use the word “pope,” rather describing himself as the “bishop of Rome.” His surprising request that we pray for him and bless him before he blessed us. The pope who has since gone “off script” so many times went off script from the first hour we met him.
Perhaps less immediately noticed were other clues to who this Pope Francis was: His appearance on the balcony in a simple white cassock. His use of an ancient descriptive of the Church of Rome as “the one that presides in charity over all other Churches” that would be appreciated by the Orthodox Christian community.
What none of us will forget from that night, however, was his smile. It beamed with a disarming genuineness that was both open and humble, inviting us in. How could one not smile back?
We have learned in the past year that he is a very smart, very confident man who is not at all reluctant to be pope, a man who has a vision of a Church that is dynamic, evangelizing and populated by disciples. We have learned he truly believes that a Church of accidents is infinitely preferable to a Church closed in on itself. We are learning he is both a loyal son of the Church and a man who knows he must seize this moment to make a difference, a man who displays a boundless trust in the way the Holy Spirit is blowing.
We did not know any of this on that cold night. But as we left the square that evening, sent home by him with a cheery “have a good rest,” we knew something dramatic had happened.
A man from the “ends of the earth” had assumed the chair of Peter. We left that square excited.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.