As the smoke—black at first, but slowly giving way to white—escaped into the sky above the Sistine Chapel, I was driving somewhere between D.C. and Richmond. There would be a wait, the NPR commentators said, while the newly elected pontiff was taken into Saint Peter’s and prepared for his grand debut on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Loggia of the Blessings.
So I waited—I had nothing better to do—and listened as they pattered on about what might be going on behind the grand façade of St. Peter’s: Would the new pontiff be African?—unlikely. Would he be American?—definitely not. Conservative?—of course.
No one anticipated, not the devout, and especially not the critics and cynics what the Church has earned for Herself: that this new pope would take the name Francis, and that his voice would sound so radical and new. It shouldn’t. He’s only speaking the Gospel, saying what other popes have said before him, but from his mouth and combined with his actions, it no longer seems like some distant ideal.
I’ve remained Catholic, though there is so much to be disappointed in and angry about, from sex scandals to liturgical music that’ll make your ears bleed, in large part because I want to be a part of the same church as St. Francis of Assisi. But I’ve long wondered if the average American parish would welcome the poor man from Assisi, or if my conception of him is pure bohemian romance.
I know I’m not alone in romanticizing Francis—even the angriest lapsed Catholic and the most secular of humanists will proudly host a Francis birdbath in his garden. Our new pope has wisely chosen the name of the last beloved emissary of the Catholic Church to the masses.