Saturday 23 September 2017

Lise Hand: Cardinals' choice a bolt from blue for Catholics

THE vast, heaving, singing, cheering, dancing crowd paused, almost as one – a tumultuous ocean suddenly becalmed, bemused, baffled.

Bergoglio.

The name rippled out across the puddled cobblestones of St Peter's Square, out down along the broad stretch of the Via Conciliazone – not in acclamation, but in astonishment.

Who is this man? Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio? In the darkness, pilgrims and clergy conferred.

Everywhere on the piazza, large groups of Italians were pictures of confusion, red, white and blue flags frozen in their hands. They had all been expecting the man from Milan, the apparent favourite, Cardinal Angelo Scola. But this Bergoglio sounded Italian. Who in heaven was he?

There was another wait. Then the red curtains parted once more and Pope Francis slowly emerged onto the balcony. A cheer rose, but it was muted.

And it then dwindled away as the brand-new Pontiff stood stiffly, arms rigidly by his side, expressionless, unsmiling, bespectacled, face as pale as his pristine, snow-white cassock.

Francis surveyed his puzzled flock, and they stared right back. Details circulated through the crowd.

He's Argentinian, from Buenos Aires, he's old, 76. There was shock among the pilgrims and panic among the legions of reporters broadcasting live from the square.

Thanks to the mysterious movements of the Holy Spirit, they'd all have to wing it. Because Cardinal Bergoglio was by no means a clear favourite to be the next pope. His name and works and philosophy and family hadn't been discussed and dissected for weeks on end.

Francis was as much a bolt from the blue as the fork of lightning which smote the dome of St Peter's Basilica on the day that his predecessor resigned.

For what seemed an age, he stood stock-still. Then a microphone appeared and he began to speak in fluent Italian. His voice was deep and strong, belying his small, slight frame.

"Buon Sera," he began, and a stronger cheer arose. "You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him ... but here we are..." he said, a small smile spreading across his face.

He then said he wanted to pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict and, bowing his head, he led his 100,000-strong congregation in the 'Our Father'.

Did the former Pope, sitting in his chair in front of the television in Castelgandolfo, bow his head too?

He talked about them all working together and then announced he would like to bless the crowd.

But first, he would like to ask a favour – he'd like to ask them to "pray to God so God can bless him".

A louder cheer broke out, people began to nod at each other and smile.

A soupcon of humility, so rare among the privileged princes of the church, began to warm hearts out on the inhospitably dank and rainy piazza.

"Francisco".

The name began to be tested on thousands of lips. Tried on for size. A brand-new name. No string of Roman numbers following it. Francis. Francisco. Or Francesco in the language of his home in Argentina.

A little while later, he gave his first Urbi et Orbi blessing. Then he appeared ready to leave, declaring: "Brothers and sisters, I am leaving you. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and I will be with you again soon."

He appeared to leave, but reached again for the microphone. He wanted to say farewell again.

"Goodnight and sleep well," he said. Laughter and cheers and shouts of "Francisco" rose once more as pilgrims streamed off in all directions, a chattering river of questions and opinions.

It was a startling end to a miserable day. From early on, a hard, unrelenting rain had hammered down upon the piazza. Undaunted, crowds poured on to the square for the first possible ballot of the day around 10.30am.

But there was no smoke. They returned for the first of the day's sighting of smoke, but at 11.40am, the chimney released a plume of black smoke.

Still, it was early days. By mid-afternoon, there was much talk about the fourth ballot – it was the one which elected Pope Benedict in 2005.

However, 5.30pm came and went, with no smoke. Doubts began to creep in. Perhaps this was turning into a long conclave, as many had predicted, a prolonged tussle between various fractured factions.

So dull was the day that the appearance of a large seagull which perched atop the flat disc of the chimney-pipe just before a possible ballot was due, caused great amusement.

There it sat, plump and content, unaware that it could be in imminent danger of having a roasted behind if a billow of hot smoke suddenly shot out. Predictably, it immediately acquired its own Twitter account.

Ah but maybe everyone should have taken heed. In simpler times, this would have been seen as an omen, a sign.

There is a story told of a saint, that one day, while he was travelling with some companions, they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side.

The pilgrim told his companions to "wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds". The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away.

It was, of course, Francis of Assisi.

The square emptied. It will rain again in Rome today. But it's still a brand new dawn.

Irish Independent

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