Pope Pius XII came to my house in Yonkers, N.Y., when I was a very little kid. I can clearly remember hanging out in the front yard waiting for him.
Then the car pulled up and a guy stepped out wearing a neat straw boater on his head and a tight van dyke beard on his chin. I said “hi” and he said, “Hiya, kid, hiya!” as he rushed up to our front door.
When Pius died in 1958, none of the coverage referred to a visit he made to North Yonkers four years earlier. And I don’t remember how it got into my head that the pope was coming to my house for dinner.
Habemus Papam. And it’s time we catch a breath.
We have a local cluck of an editorial cartoonist who drew a picture of the pope on the loggia. Little captions announced “1st Latino Pope” and “1st Jesuit Pope” and “1st Francis Pope.” Then the punch line: “266th Conservative Pope” — conservative to be interpreted as hidebound medieval reactionary.
It was a good representation, if totally unintended, of a Catholic understanding of the papacy. The pope is essentially conservative, the Servant of the Servants of God, charged with conserving the Deposit of Faith through the Holy Spirit as taught by Jesus. St. Peter, the first; Francis, the 266th.
Which does not mean that a pope can’t shake things up. I was 8 when Pope Pius died and his successor, Pope John XXIII was elected. I thought the new pope looked a lot like the man who drove around the neighborhood in his truck selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Pope John would call the Second Vatican Council.
As Catholics, we understand the role of the papacy. At the same time, we feel close to the human stories, intertwining ourselves to the popes of our times, and seeing how they connect with us at different points in our lives.
When Pope Paul VI was elected in June 1963, I was a 13-year-old working through the last days of my paper route. I read all about the new pope in the afternoon newspaper I was delivering.
Albino Luciani would reign as Pope John Paul I from his election on Aug. 26, 1978, to his death on Sept. 28.
I worked with Dale Francis, a veteran Catholic editor and columnist, who complained in his column that everyone had it wrong. The new pope was not John Paul I — he was just Pope John Paul, without the number after his name. He was right, but not really as the Vatican Press Office formally responded that despite Dale’s critique, the pontiff used “the first.” That ended that.
When Pope John Paul II was announced on Oct. 16, 1978, I was in a room full of Catholic editors and journalists. We all had our lists of possible popes, all Italian cardinals. When the name “Wojtyla” was announced, we looked at each other. Then a secretary to one of the Catholic editors said, “It’s the Polish cardinal,” and we all nodded our heads as if we knew all along.
When the white smoke appeared 26 years later and the bells of Rome rang, a woman sitting next to me as we watched the television asked if I thought Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would be elected. I gave a rather long-winded and pompous explanation as to why that would be highly unlikely, then smiled and clapped sheepishly when Pope Benedict XVI appeared on the loggia.
We gathered in a room with a small television when the white smoke billowed from the chimney pipe March 13. Everyone was talking, wondering, guessing. This time I kept my post-60 mouth shut.
When he was announced with the name Pope Francis, the room was almost prayerful. When he asked the crowd for its blessing, the room was as quiet as St. Peter’s Square.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.