By Michelle Hough, communications officer for Caritas Internationalis
If I think of St Francis, I think of sandals… and a cord belt around a rough brown tunic, a bald pate and of course, a man surrounded by birds and squirrels. My thoughts about him had never gone further than the usual clichés that I learnt about when I was five. That was until last night…
I’d been in St Peter’s Square in the morning, sure that the conclave of cardinals wouldn’t reach a decision on a Pope. The black smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel chimney confirmed that at midday. I didn’t even bother going to St Peter’s for the evening ballot because everyone was saying that a Pope wouldn’t be agreed upon until the next day. Then I got a phone call at home at 7pm to say the smoke was white.
I knew from the 2005 conclave that the Pope wouldn’t come out on the balcony for at least 45 minutes. He has to pray, put the white robes on, make his way all the way from the Sistine Chapel to the balcony in front of St Peter’s, and probably take a few minutes to get over the shock of it all. But all the same I drove like a maniac on my moped through the backstreets of Rome so I wouldn’t miss anything.
When I arrived near St Peter’s I saw crowds walking – some running – to the square. The police weren’t allowing anyone to come in through the colonnade but I managed to climb over a barrier to get in and work my way right to the front of the piazza. Patrick and Alistair (Caritas’s heads of communications and humanitarian response respectively) joined me a bit later.
I think a lot of people in the square were a bit flummoxed when the new Pope was announced. “Bergo…who?!” That was most people apart from the three Argentine women standing next to us who went absolutely crazy on the announcement.
But then it sank in, and the news was good: a Jesuit, a man dedicated to the poor and a simple life, a man from a place where the Church is vibrant and a place which is not Europe, which has dominated Papal appointments for centuries. And euphoria swept the crowd.
The Pope came out on the balcony and his white robes were dazzling in the glare of the floodlights. He spoke of being the Bishop of Rome, of brotherhood, of undertaking a journey together. He seemed almost shy, but there was no doubting the power of what he was saying or what he represented.
Cardinal Bergoglio was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Biographies said that he travelled on public transport and he gave up the possibility to live in a palatial bishops house to live in plain apartment.
At work this morning there was a general feeling of excitement about the election of Pope Francis. I happened to answer the phone when Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, our president, rang and I couldn’t help asking him a stream of questions.
Did he know the Pope before the conclave? What was he like? What did he (Cardinal Rodriguez) think about the election? What did they all do last night after the election?
Cardinal Oscar, who’s from Honduras and used to be president of the Latin American bishops conference, said he knew Pope Francis well and they were ‘amici dell’anima’. He said that his election was a great thing for the Church and that he had started off in great simplicity. After the election, all the cardinals ate with the Pope at the residence in the Vatican where they’d been staying during the conclave and there was a ‘great sense of fraternity’.
Later, my colleague Alfonso said, “I was in St Peter’s square and right before the Pope’s name was announced I said to Olga (another colleague), ‘Just think if he chooses Francis as a name’.”
Alfie thought this not only because there’d never been a Pope Francis, but also because poverty was St. Francis’s ‘bride’. He also said that St Francis was called upon by the Lord to rebuild his Church.
Things I’d learnt about St Francis years ago started to come back and I began thinking about the significance of the Pope choosing the name Francis. I rang Francisco O’Connaire, a Rome-based Franciscan brother, with whom I’d been chatting about possible Popes at Caritas the day before.
Meanwhile, our colleague Fr Pierre said Pope Francis had been staying in the religious house where he and other priests lived and had been sharing meals with them right up until the conclave started. I asked what he was like and he said, “Exactly what he presented himself as last night, a simple man.”
Then he added, “Now we should do what he asked us to do – pray for him.”