ROME – When the white smoke appeared, those of us in St. Peter's Square couldn't help but feel that we stood at the heart of our faith: architectural beauty surrounded us as smoke wafted upwards and bells tolled; a real sense of hope spread among people of all ages and nationalities as we waited to see who would step out on the balcony as our next Pope.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appeared, the crowd's first reaction was surprise. That in itself should have been surprising: while Bergoglio's name wasn't frequently mentioned this past week, he had significant support in the last conclave, and that support clearly remained strong.
And for good reason: Pope Francis is someone who has lived out the Christian ideals of humility and service. In Argentina he was seen as an intellectual and a pastor who eschewed the trappings of his office, a man of great personal holiness and simplicity. Says Alejandro Bermudez, a leader in the Christian Life Movement, "Pope Francis is the man Argentineans know for leaving the Archbishop's mansion for a small apartment at a downtown parish in Buenos Aires, who travels by bus and subway, and who during the consistory of 2001, when he was created a Cardinal, requested that wealthy Argentineans renounce accompanying him and give the equivalent amount to the poor. Pope Francis has the mind of a Jesuit and the lifestyle of a Franciscan. I have no doubt that his simplicity and courage will take the Church to where it longs to be."
So where does the Church long to be? We long for renewal and unity. Pope Francis seems poised to take Catholics in that direction. Whatever their views on various disputed issues in the Church, Catholics love St. Francis; every Italian in St. Peter's Square seemed to be shouting "Francesco! Francesco!"
Catholics also remember the words that God spoke to Francis: "Rebuild my Church!" Pope Francis will no doubt strive to do just that. Those familiar with his background describe him as an outsider to the curia as well as a man with "steel in his spine", both of which will help reform the dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy.
Rebuilding the Church also means rekindling the faith in cultures that have grown indifferent to it. This is best accomplished through authentic personal witness to the radical Christian call to love God and our neighbor. As St. Francis said, "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words."
Cardinal Bergoglio's life in Argentina witnessed to essential Christian truths through, among other things, his simple life and frequent visits to the poor. Last night Pope Francis witnessed to the need for a renewed humility in the Church; before bestowing a blessing on us, he knelt down and asked for our blessing. The once-cheering crowd became completely silent; you could hear the water flowing through the fountains. More than any words spoken, that moment – standing together in silent prayer, blessing our kneeling pope – spoke to the humility at the heart of our faith, and reminded us that we find God in silence.
Perhaps most importantly, Pope Francis seems poised to resolve the false divisions that too often pit Catholics against each other. Our faith calls us to serve the voiceless and vulnerable wherever we find them; care for the poor and care for the unborn are both reflections of this central Catholic truth. And as a Latin American of Italian heritage, he's also a bridge between Europe and the Americas; his pontificate will mark a turning point in the Church's shift to the global south.
In that moment of silence at St. Peter's we saw something we don't see much on the world stage: authentic humility. That's the essence of our faith, and that's what will renew our Church.