“So what do you think of the new Pope?” I find myself hesitating to answer the question not because it’s difficult or because I want to give a negative response but because it stirs up so much unexpected emotion.
The morning of the second day of the conclave I was leaving a meeting at Loyola Marymount University walking along an outdoor path when the chapel bells began ringing. They chimed loud and long. It seemed odd as it was 11:20 which is not a usual time for bells. It hit me after a few minutes that there must be a new Pope and this was a way of announcing the news.
Jumping into the car I searched radio stations looking for news and found most reporting white smoke rising from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The minutes dragged on as newscasters, priests and theologians filled air time with Vatican history and speculation on who the new Pope might be. Meanwhile my phone rang from others as impatient as I was.
The drama was high with reports of velvet curtains parting and faces looking out to the crowd and finally the announcement was made: Jose Mario Bergoglio, a man from Argentina who was also a member of the Society of Jesus – a Jesuit had been chosen as Pope and he took the name Francis. The announcement touched something that brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to pull off the freeway and talk to somebody, anybody about the significance of the choice.
Much as I wanted to rush home and turn on the television to see what was happening I had to stop at the grocery store and when my daughter called excitedly to discuss the news I was still in a high state of emotion and found myself wiping my eyes in the ice cream aisle. What was this all about?
Upon reflection I realized that working with the Jesuits over the past five years was influencing my emotional response to the announcement. The practice of putting faith into action and the consistent gentle reminder to find God in all things had brought about a welcome change in thinking and ultimately to life. My faith had been stretched, broadened due to learning about the work and example of Ignatius of Loyola and while I am still in the very beginning stages of the experience I am grateful for it.
As a Jesuit Pope Francis has embraced Ignatian spirituality which took root over 500 years ago as Ignatius walked the streets of Rome ministering to the poor and gathering a small band of followers. It is a spirituality based on awareness of God and the surrounding world rather than on a set of rules. It uses phrases such as “contemplatives in action” and “men and women for others” as it offers an invitation to walk down the church steps and into the world to care for whoever is in need. Jesuits and now their many lay partners are active in their search for outreach.
What we read about this Pope tells us he cares for the poor and those on the margins of society. He lived simply without the trappings his position can bring and was accessible to the people he served. In a world so fascinated with wealth and power this offers hope.
The media coverage of the retirement of Pope Benedict and the gathering of cardinals in Rome was surprising and seemed to indicate that despite recent troubles the Catholic Church remains a revered institution. A few weeks ago at a parish meeting my pastor suggested the daily front page stories about the Catholic Church might mean it makes a difference in the world. It was a positive way of looking at things and fits with the extended coverage of the retirement of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis. Who knew that so many newscasters and pundits were Catholic and ready to share their experiences with such excitement? It might be wishful thinking but it feels like something is shifting in the universe.
We do not know the future, however, we do know that change is possible and we seem to be living in an age when the Church is poised to move forward by looking back to its roots. Perhaps Pope Francis will enable that change and that movement.
Anne Hansen is Regional Director for IVC Los Angeles and has written a column for the Tidings newspaper for many years (nearly 20) – Family Time. She co-authored Culture-Sensitive Ministry (Paulist Press, 2010) and offers workshops and retreats throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.