Amid the scarlet sea inside the Sistine Chapel is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Wisps of white hair peek out of his skullcap, and his cheeks, like supple leather, droop under his thick brown eyeglasses. His belly has become rather distended after many years of cortisone treatments to help him breathe; he only has one fully functioning lung due to a respiratory infection during his youth. The cardinal may well have been anyone’s grandfather if not for the bright cassock. In fact, right now, anyone in this hallowed room tucked inside the Vatican could have been anyone’s grandfather. It is quite difficult to pick him out of this crowd. But back in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio is well-known and well-loved. He may be the highest-ranking Catholic prelate in Argentina, but he is notable for his work in the city slums.
Today, however, Cardinal Bergoglio is 13 hours away by air from his homeland, and he is only one of the 115 cardinals who will elect the Supreme Pontiff, the shepherd of the flock of 1.2 billion Catholics. Today, March 12, 2013, the conclave begins.
Cardinal Bergoglio, like his fellow cardinals, is deep in thought, with a ballot card in hand. He doesn’t see it, but he will move things bigger than himself.
To the modern world, there is a familiar air to all these proceedings, as it has just been eight years since the passing of John Paul II. And now, due to old age and frail health, Benedict XVI has resigned from office, which is customarily held until death. So there was no pope to mourn over, and deliberations at the General Congregation days before the cardinals were to cast their ballots probed into the pressing concerns of the Church. Secular movement has been growing in the Western world, and changes in the Catholic population have shifted toward the Southern Hemisphere, while a flawed Vatican bureaucracy has been floundering around in its internal upheavals.
While others spoke of evangelization strategies or Vatican finances, Cardinal Bergoglio talked about the Church’s future and its recent string of shortcomings...
Apart from all the politics, cardinals supposed that it would take a young pope to take on these challenges, and some thought that, at 76, maybe Cardinal Bergoglio was too old to turn things around. He may have come in second to Benedict XVI in 2005 conclave, but this time, Cardinal Bergoglio had been eclipsed by more high-profile North American and European candidates. But the South American cardinal went on his way. He had assumed that this latest visit to Rome would be a short one. He had his return ticket, and his Easter Sunday homily for the approaching Holy Week celebration had already been written. Clearly, Cardinal Bergoglio was not in the running, until his four-minute speech at a General Congregation on March 7.
While others spoke of evangelization strategies or Vatican finances, Cardinal Bergoglio talked about the Church’s future and its recent string of shortcomings, addressing the red-hued assembly in Italian. The Church has become too self-referential, he averred, and now she has to go beyond the walls of the Vatican—to the peripheries where most are struggling with poverty and socioeconomic injustice. The speech bore his trademark, and it was straightforward and refreshing, all delivered, using his bulleted notes in Spanish. And it caught the attention of several cardinals. Something began to unfold, and Cardinal Bergoglio was now a papabile. But the pressure started to weigh upon him.
He will preside over the marriage ceremony of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica. But the real story will be in the specifics: Some already have children, some have been living together, and some have been previously married.
A couple of days before the start of the conclave, Canadian priest, Rev. Thomas Rosica ran into Cardinal Bergoglio at Piazza Navona. The Argentinian cardinal was on his way home to the modest Domus Internationalis Paulus VI hotel. He clasped Rev. Rosica’s hands and said, “Pray for me.”
“Are you nervous?” asked Rev. Rosica.
“A little bit,” he admitted.
And now Cardinal Bergoglio is here at the conclave, surrounded by Michaelangelo’s frescoes—The Last Judgement, The Creation of Adam. The Delphic Sybil looks away from her prophetic scroll and into the future. What does she see? Cardinal Bergoglio, like his fellow cardinals, is deep in thought, with a ballot card in hand. He doesn’t see it, but he will move things bigger than himself.
He will live simply. He will turn down the Apostolic Palace and choose to stay in the more modest Vatican guesthouse. He will drive around the grounds in a secondhand 1984 Renault 4.
He will travel to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where tens of thousands of Muslim refugees have fled in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring unrest across North Africa. Desperate and hungry, these exiles have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in run-down boats, heading for this southernmost part of Italy. Many have drowned, and those who have survived are struggling to live with dignity. He will meet them in a soccer field and celebrate Mass with them, using an altar atop a small fishing vessel. He will speak against global indifference. The world will listen, and Europe will be compelled to see the despair
He will telephone members of the faith who have given him letters and hand out money to down-and-out pensioners. He will embrace a man covered with tumors and wash the feet of Muslim prisoners. He will refuse to condemn homosexuals and to have them marginalized.
He will preside over the marriage ceremony of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica. But the real story will be in the specifics: Some already have children, some have been living together, and some have been previously married. He will
He will create a permanent council of cardinals, consisting of eight members with all six continents well-represented. He will consult with them on reforming the Curia, the Vatican’s governing body. He will clean up the troubled Vatican bank, set up a commission to investigate its activities and change four of the five the cardinal overseers. And unless this financial institution observes fiscal transparency and accountability, he will threaten to shut it down...
But he will still have a sense of
He will gleefully wear a red nose in support of a charity that cheers up children with clowns. He will stop the popemobile, crawling through the Vatican crowd, to try on a firefighter’s helmet. He will let a lamb rest on his shoulders when he visits a Nativity re-enactment on the northern outskirts of Rome. He will pose for the first-ever Papal selfie with teenagers on a pilgrimage. He will be unperturbed as a young boy leaps onto the stage and hugs his thigh as he speaks to a multitude at St. Peter’s Square. He will just pat his head and carry on with his speech.
He will telephone members of the faith who have given him letters and hand out money to down-and-out pensioners. He will embrace a man covered with
But it will not be so much as bending the rules as it is bridging the gap. Maybe God’s finger did not only create Adam; it is Him reaching out to
After 28 hours, the conclave will decide. White plumes of smoke will drift out, and it will all begin. He will be everyman’s pope. And he will be called Francis.
This article originally appeared in Our Pope magazine, published by Summit Media.