It was 2:00 this morning when I heard my mother’s voice say my name and the door to my room creaked open. I raised my head and uttered just one word – and one in Latin, at that: “Habemus?”
Habemus – from the phrase Habemus Papam – “We have a Pope!” – the jubilant declaration that Catholics the world over await with bated breath when white smoke comes billowing out of a chimney connected to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It is a phrase that people – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – the world over have been waiting for since the heartbreaking day the now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared that he was stepping down at 8:00 PM (GMT+1) last 28 February 2013. Considering that it was less than 24 hours since the ex omnes (literally: “Everyone who ain’t supposed to be here, get the heck out!“) announcement that kicked off the Conclave to elect a new Pope, I think people were more than a little stunned – but that didn’t stop crowds from flocking into St. Peter’s Square despite the driving rain.
Habemus Papam! I remember hurriedly putting in my contact lenses and scrambling to my parents’ room across the hall where EWTN was on the telly and I saw it for myself: plumes upon plumes of white smoke billowing up into the Roman sky at just five after seven in the evening (Rome time) according to the big clock over the Basilica balcony.
“I suddenly woke up,” my dad said. “And your mother woke and said, ‘Why don’t you turn the television on? Maybe we have a new Pope.’ Sure enough, there was the smoke!”
“White smoke!” my brother texted from his parish in nearby Paranaque. I remember grinning when Dad read the text out loud. While I had lived through three Conclaves (following the respective deaths of Paul VI, John Paul I, and Blessed John Paul II), my brother had only seen one (he was born a year after the Blessed John Paul II was elected) and the first six years of his ministry as a priest were under Benedict XVI. I was pretty sure that he, like all of us at home and like the rest of the world, was all but dying of curiosity as to the identity of the new prelate.
As Catholic Filipinos, my family has talked about Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle (popularly known as “Cardinal Chito”) whose name had been bandied about as a dark horse papabile (papal candidate) by the international media for the past week leading up to the Conclave. Both my parents, however, regarded the notion dubious in light of the fact that, at but fifty-odd, Cardinal Chito was rather young (maybe even too young) to be Pope and – a more compelling reason – had not been cardinal for very long; he was among the last proclaimed by Benedict XVI towards the end of last year! So, while a Pope from Asia would have been most welcome, now may not be the time for it – well, not just yet.
Some friends from overseas had their own candidates: Scotsman Floyd, while a lukewarm, easy-on-his-faith Catholic, declared that the only possible man for the job was the Irish bishop Diarmuid Martin, who while not a cardinal, had the strength of character for the job of Pope. His Missus, on the other hand, thought that maybe it was high time that a non-European should sit in St. Peter’s chair; she couldn’t name any candidates of preference, though. The Antipodean, a sort-of-practicing Catholic (which is to say he says his prayers and the Rosary, but rarely hauls himself out for Sunday Mass), was particularly adamant about his hometown guy, his hometown shepherd: George Cardinal Pell of Sydney.
“We need a Sydney bloke in the Vatican,” he told me earnestly as we chatted online hours before. “We’re cosmopolitan, friendly with other faiths, moderate in our beliefs, and we generally get along with everyone! Think of how much kindlier the Church would be!” To hear this from my normally hedonistic, fun-loving, devil-may-care friend was startling to say the very least, but I will never forget the earnestness with which he uttered those words.
It was a whole hour before someone actually said the words “Habemus Papam!” But the bells of the Vatican pealed continuously and people kept streaming into the Square, each group of pilgrims, clerics, nuns, and seminarians waving their own flags, hoisting their own banners. Despite the rain, many had brought their children to the Square – and I remembered my own time in Rome when I first saw the Blessed John Paul II when my grandmother pointed him out to me; I hoped that these children would also carry the memory of this time in their hearts no matter how old they would become.
When the proto-deacon – the cardinal tasked to make the announcement – appeared at the balcony, a great silence seemed to come over the throng down below. People were bewildered when the name announced was Georgium Bergoglio – Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio – of Argentina, who would henceforth be known as Francis. And the white cassocked and bespectacled man who came out onto the balcony had a kind, albeit seriously bewildered, face; kind of like someone’s dear old uncle or granddad, like someone who was very kind and would lend a helping hand or an ear to listen to your troubles.
That he took on the name of St. Francis of Assisi, humblest man in Christendom in my personal opinion, was unprecedented. But this man was a cleric of the people: one who lived most simply, eschewing the comforts of the Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires for simpler accomodation. He rode public transport; cooked his own meals. He called out priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock, telling them that hypocrisy in the Church was a grave sin in itself. He washed the feet of those dying of AIDS one Maundy Thursday and spoke with great love and zeal for the oppressed.
I stared at that worried-looking gentleman at the balcony and realized that a new era would be dawning for the Roman Catholic Church. I hope – and I most heartily pray – that we will all do our part in helping Pope Francis as he takes on the challenge of leading the people of God.
“And now let us begin this journey, the Bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood in love, of mutual trust.”
-from the first Urbi et Orbi (The City of Rome and the World) address of His Holiness, Pope Francis; 13 March 2013