It is indeed a great joy to again have a pope. This joy is particularly great for those of us who live and work at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. The North American College was founded to give American seminarians and priests the opportunity to study in the heart of Catholicism and, while doing so, to develop a special love for and loyalty toward the Holy Father. For me and my 250 brother seminarians, this was fulfilled in our deep love for Pope Benedict. He was our father, who led us always to Jesus with great humility and courage.
Ever since the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation, life in Rome has been a whirlwind. We, like Catholics around the world, felt orphaned, abandoned. We felt an emptiness; a place in our hearts that used to be comfortably filled was all of a sudden empty. Further, daily life in Rome, while seemingly continuing as normal, was marked by this pervading emptiness. We were without our bishop, without our pastor, and his absence was felt.
Then, a few minutes past 7 p.m. on March 13, when the white smoke rose out of the chimney attached to the Sistine Chapel, that gap was filled, the news quickly spread, we had a pope, we once more had a shepherd. Those of us who were not in the square when the smoke began to billow ran as fast as possible to get into the square and join the massive crowd in welcoming the new holy father. There were people from all over the world, young and old, priests, nuns and families. Many were praying the rosary for the new pope, chanting, "Viva il papa" (Long live the pope).
One of the most amazing aspects of being in the square in the time before the new pope’s name was announced was that the we were overjoyed to have a pope, no matter who it was. We didn’t know yet whom the cardinals had chosen but to us it didn’t matter; whoever it was would continue to lead us to Jesus with the same love and attentiveness as Pope Benedict had.
It was not long before Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on the balcony and announced to the world the long-awaited words, "Habemus papam" (We have a pope). Instantly, a huge applause rose up from the square. We had a pope and the joy was apparent. The cardinal then went on, "Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum dominum, dominum Georgium Mariam, sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio," (the most eminent and reverend, Jorge Maria Cardinal of the holy Roman Church, Bergoglio).
Bergoglio! Bergoglio! Who? That was, I must admit, my first thought. I asked my classmates, standing next to me, who it was, and the word spread quickly that it was the cardinal from Buenos Aires. Seconds later, Cardinal Tauran continued, "qui sibi nomen imposuit, Francescum"(who has taken the name Francis).
Francis! Francis! We have never had a Francis before. All of the speculation about who would be elected and what name he would choose, all the guessing about what the cardinals would do, was thrown out the window. This was something new, something unexpected.
A few more minutes elapsed before the pope appeared on the balcony. When he came out what was immediately most striking was his posture. He didn’t raise his two arms in the air and gesture to the crowd like our last two popes had done. He just quietly stood, and waved, and looked on us with love. He began his remarks, speaking to each of our hearts, leading us in prayers for Pope Benedict. It was really incredible to pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be together with the pope. After a few more remarks, he then asked us to pray silently that God would bless him before giving us his blessing. When he asked this, he bowed down, and the whole square, which for hours and even days had been electric with activity and waiting and excitement, fell silent and prayed to God for our new pope. The silence was incredible. All of us, no matter where we were from, prayed together for our pope. We were united in prayer, not just in excitement.
From that night it was clear that Francis would be the pope that the cardinals elected him to be. He would be himself, the way the Benedict was himself and John Paul II was himself. The pope can only shepherd God’s people authentically by staying true to himself. This, I think, is the lesson each of us can learn from the election of Pope Francis and from his pontificate as it goes forward. God has called him with his style and his gifts.
This doesn’t mean that we leave behind the great things that both Popes Benedict and John Paul II have taught us. Rather, it means that we recognize the personal gifts of those popes as well as the personal gifts of Pope Francis. He will be the pope that God wants him to be and will teach us to be the Catholics that God calls us to be. He will call us to have lives totally centered on Jesus Christ, as he did in his first homily in the Sistine Chapel the day after his election. He will remind us of the need for powerful devotion to Mary, as he demonstrated by making his first papal act a visit to the basilica dedicated to Mary the Mother of God in order to bring flowers to one of the altars there. He will preach the mercy of God and encourage us to make use of the sacrament of confession, as he so vigorously stressed at his first Angelus, stating multiple times, "God never tires of forgiving us, we tire of asking for his mercy." He will foster within us a deeper devotion to the Mass and the Eucharist as we see his unabashed piety. He will be a visible witness to us of the joy in the authentically lived Catholic life as his smile and enthusiasm radiates around the world. In short, he will be our shepherd and will lead us directly to Jesus. This is indeed a great joy. In Francis, the words are truly spoken – Habemus Papam, We have a pope.
Deacon Michael Casey is in his fourth year of formation at the Pontifical North American College and is studying moral theology at the Angelicum University in Rome. He is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood on May 11 in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford.