by Dan Westermann
One of the great blessings of preparing for the Priesthood in the Eternal City, is the opportunity to remain so close to the Holy Father. This last year provided a unique blessing to be present at the election of Pope Francis on Wednesday, March 13. The structure of the Conclave guarantees that two times every day, smoke will be released from the small chimney above the Sistine Chapel. Before Wednesday, I had been present for the previous two times when the black smoke was released. That evening, we had our communal praying of vespers moved forward so that the seminarians could be in St. Peter’s Square in case anything happened. I was waiting about halfway back, next to the large obelisk in the middle of the piazza, with one of my classmates and two of the fifth-year priests from the American College. Because of the rain, everyone had umbrellas up and out, which made it difficult to see the screens showing the close-up on the chimney. Right around seven o’clock, gray smoke started to pour forth from the opening. A similar shade was seen at the start of the previous night’s burning of ballots. I remarked to one of the priests, “Oh, it’s going to turn black again…” But then I heard a gasp in the crowd and he shouted back, “It’s white!” The four of us all shouted back and forth in disbelief, “It’s white, it’s white!” As the excitement grew we made our way, with the other few thousand people in the square, as close as possible to the balcony. The next hour was filled with shouts of, “Viva il Papa! Long live the Pope!” although no one yet knew who had been elected. As Pope Francis made his way onto the Loggia, everyone cheered with excitement. The love of the crowd for this one man was palpable, we were just waiting for some sign of affection back. As they finally brought forward the microphone, the simple inflection of his voice in his greeting, “Buonasera!” (Good evening) was enough to win the hearts of everyone in the piazza.
Two things really stuck out from that night: first was the incredible diversity of the Church. I can’t imagine any other event in the world where you could find people of every age, coming from every continent, excited about one man. It was a clear sign of why the Church Fathers always pointed to the Pope as the “source of Unity” of the Church. The other thing was Francis’ incredible humility in taking on this role. When he asked the crowd to pray that the Lord would bless him, one could hear a pin-drop in the square. The presence of the Spirit was palpable as everyone interceded for our new Father.
Now after a few months of his service, many people are still interested in what this unique Papa Americano is up to. Regarding the New Evangelization, I think Francis can help us to see one crucial aspect to witnessing to the Truth: that is simplicity. The many stories about his simple ways in Argentina spread like wildfire, and now he has even forgone moving into the Papal apartments. His life of incredible simplicity, while definitely drawing attention of many outside the Church, has really been shaking things up within Her walls. He is calling the whole Church to a life of poverty, where our one treasure is Jesus Christ. As we surrender more and more to a radical simplicity, imitating our Holy Father Francis, I think that we will begin to see a great flourishing of evangelization. People will see the great witness of Catholics who do not store up treasure here on earth, but treasure in heaven, and they will not help but question, “What is different here?” The answer is simple: our treasure is Christ. The deeper that we are drawn in our relationship with Christ, the more that we are able to rely on him for everything and the more that we recognize the fleetingness of so much of what the world offers us.
May the example of Pope Francis challenge us to grow in simplicity and a love for the poor. To our great Holy Father, ad multos annos!