A Denton seminarian’s account of the new Pope’s introduction to the world

Below is a message from Joe Keating. Many of you might remember him as the former Youth Minister at St Mark Catholic Church. He is now in Seminary in Rome. Read his exciting account of all that happened Wednesday, March 13:

Dear Friends and Family,

This email started off as an update, and soon became a novel. What follows is an account of the events of yesterday from my point of view. If you have time to read it all, I hope that you will feel like you were there too. I carry all of you in my prayers, especially at joyful times such as these.

White Smoke

Yesterday began as an ordinary day, with Mass and seminary classes in the morning. After third hour, most of us made our way over to St. Peter’s square to watch the smoke come from the chimney at noon. But as I approached the square at about 10 minutes till noon, there were already crowds streaming away from the piazza. I asked someone, “did the smoke already go up?” “Sì, è nera,” he said. I was kind of shocked that it was early, but thankful that I didn’t miss the white smoke. 

My afternoon seminar was cancelled, so a few of us from my hall went back to the Square at 5:00 to pray and watch for potential white smoke after the first afternoon ballot. We prayed a rosary and sang a litany of the saints and a Marian hymn. It was raining on and off, but the Square was still packed with people (47% of whom were reporters :P). I can only imagine what the forest of umbrellas must have looked like from above! At 6:00 we rushed back to the College for Evening Prayer, then rushed straight back to the Square to see the smoke at 7:00.

White smoke from the Sistine Chape. (c) Boston Globe

At that point, many of us were expecting another round of black smoke. Thursday was the day I was betting on, and some were saying it would be Saturday or even sometime next week. After having seen the black smoke on Tuesday evening, I knew that there would be an initial puff of grayish smoke, followed by billowing black. I was chatting with my classmates when the smoke emerged at around 7:05. My thoughts went in rapid succession a little like this: “Oh, here comes the smoke… it’s gray now, but it’s going to be black… ok, it’s still not black… it’s not turning black… is it white? White smoke??!! WE GOT WHITE SMOKE!! OH YEAH!! HABEMUS PAPAM, BABY!! 

Vatican News Service photo

Anticipation and Announcement

At this point, everyone was cheering, shouting, and basically stampeding towards the front of the square. The umbrella forest became a dense jungle canopy. In the chaos of the crowd, I somehow managed to end up in a small group of NAC seminarians, well in front of the obelisk and about 30 yards from the front barricades. The giant bells of St. Peter’s began to ring, and the commotion intensified–you could just feel the anticipation in the air. It continued to rain lightly, and I strained to snap a few pictures of the white smoke, the bells, and the crowd. My classmates and I were buzzing about the new pope, but we really had absolutely no new information. We started guessing what his new name would be… Paul VII? John XXIV? Pius XIII? Leo? Someone we’ve never heard of? At least nobody guessed Peter II.

Those 45 minutes went by in a flash, but the next 15 were an eternity. The rain slowed, then stopped. The umbrella jungle vanished. Then we began to see signs of movement. The lights on the loggia came on, and the people cheered. There was a rustle of the curtains, and the people cheered. Someone thought they saw a shadow, and the people cheered. It was like they were teasing us! Finally, the windows swung open, and the cardinal stepped out, announcing a message of great joy: habemus papam! He announced his birth name and his new name in Latin, then retreated back inside. The reaction from the crowd was not what I expected. Up to now, every little thing made the crowd erupt in cheers, but this time, all I heard was hushed murmuring all around. In dozens of different languages, everyone seemed to be collectively thinking, “what did he say? Bergoglio? who is that?” A single word passed my lips: “Francis.” Our Holy Father is Francis.

My friends quickly pulled out their smartphones and desperately tried to find some webpage, Wikipedia page, Facebook page, anything to let us know who he is. It was no use; the cell towers couldn’t handle the number of phones in the piazza. My classmate jokingly remarked, “It’s definitely a first-world problem that I can’t update my Facebook status right now.” Then we tried to recall whether there had been a pope Francis. I could have sworn that there was, but I must have been thinking of the handful of Franciscan popes we have had through the years. So, Francis the first… immediately I recalled the words St. Francis of Assisi heard from the Lord, “Francis, rebuild my Church, which has fallen into ruin.” A great sense of hope, joy, and zeal washed over me. This Pope’s leadership will shape my priestly ministry.

The Holy Father Emerges

As Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony, the crowd, as expected, erupted. I couldn’t see the jumbotron over the crowd, so I just stared up at the balcony as he began to speak. “Cari fratelli e sorelle, buona sera!” Another eruption of cheers. His first request, “Before I give you my blessing, I would ask that you pray for me.” Then came the din of a million people in complete silence. “For fortitude… for faithfulness,” I prayed. He gave us his Apostolic Blessing and bid us good night and rest well. He must not have slept a wink last night.

Vatican News Service Photo

Back at the College

We returned to the College and immediately did what Pope Francis asked: we solemnly exposed the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and began to sing hymns and pray for him. After our prayers and a quick bite to eat came a scene that I will not soon forget. By now, the American media had arrived in the building, and the cardinals were on their way. The whole seminary community lined the halls and waited for the cardinals’ homecoming. The scene quickly turned into a pep-rally/victory party atmosphere, with raucous cheers and chants you would expect in a football stadium. Our two Jesuit faculty members, Fr. Herrera and Fr. Hurley, tried to hide in the back of the crowd, but they were quickly thrown into the center of the cheering seminarians to shouts of HE–RRE–RA! and FA–ther HUR–ley! clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. You know the one. I can only imagine what was going through the media’s minds as they heard the shouts echoing through the halls. They must have been perplexed by our celebration–“shouldn’t they be disappointed that an American didn’t win?” Quite the contrary. We have a pope. He is the vicar of Christ, who is the head of His body, the Church. He is the visible sign that the Church will endure forever and for all ages. 

Then the cardinals finally arrived–Dolan first. “DO-LAN! DO-LAN!” we cheered. You would have thought he was the one elected pope. You see, he is a former Rector of the North American College, so the exuberant welcome had a real feeling of homecoming for us all. Then one by one, the others came through… Rigali, Wuerl, DiNardo, George, Mahoney. They filed down the halls and towards the media, who were waiting to interview them in various rooms in the College. 

The celebration continued into the night, and everyone exchanged stories on what they had heard about our new Holy Father. A former Jesuit, a humble man, a life of radical poverty, an Argentine… In the end, we knew that God has provided us with a good shepherd. A new chapter now begins in this great adventure. Please pray for our new Pope, Francis. And if you ever get to visit Rome, you can join with the cheers of faithful from around the world, “FRAN–CES–CO! FRAN–CES–CO!”

Yours in Christ,

Joe Keating

Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI and the next guy in the job

I woke up this morning to the startling news that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning at the end of the month, citing failing health and energy. The last time a pope resigned was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down to end the Western Schism that had multiple claimants to the papacy.  Obviously, nobody alive has experienced a situation like this.
Pontiffs die—sometimes suddenly, sometimes after a long illness—and an appropriate mourning period is completed before a conclave is convened to elect a new pope.  The new pope is guided by the former pope’s staff and tradition, and learns the job as he goes. Very little changes, and when it does, it’s not rapid change. This is the way it’s been for 2,000 years.
For the first time in six centuries the next pope will have his predecessor alive and nearby. How will that man, known only to God right now, feel about that? No pope in more than half a millennium has had his predecessor around to watch how he’s doing.
Presidents and Prime Ministers usually have one or more predecessors around and often consult them on matters of state. There’s a period of time between the election and the inauguration, and a transition staff ensures a seamless transfer of power. This happens with local elected offices as well. It’s considered a courtesy for the former leader to help the new leader assume power.
Monarchs die, but they have had decades to groom their replacement, their heir, for the job. The rare abdicationusually results in a parent going into retirement while the heir takes the reigns.
If the President of the United States dies in office or resigns(and I’ve experienced both in my lifetime) there is still an orderly, if slightly frantic, transition of power.  Even with short notice and lots of emotion, the new president can step into the job because presumably he (or someday she) has been kept in the loop and groomed for the job. The U.S. Constitution (25th Amendment) is very clear about presidential succession.
Not so with the pope, who is, after all, a head of state as well as the spiritual leader of a billion Catholics worldwide. There is no “pope-in-waiting” or “vice pope,” no constitutional line of succession. While names of possible new popes are already being tossed around, nobody is groomed for the job, and nobody on Earth has ever had the last pope on speed dial.
By many accounts, Pope Benedict accepted the job reluctantly. A shy academic theologian more comfortable with his books and writing, he took to the job with energy despite being the oldest pope (78) at election in more than 300 years. While he never achieved the rock star status of Blessed John Paul II, he grew into the role as the years went on, and leaves a legacy of influence and change in the church during troubled times. He even promoted the use of social media by the clergy, and encouraged better communication from the Vatican.  
Yes, the shadow of the sex abuse scandal is a long one, and it will be a generation before those involved are no longer part of the clergy. But Benedict’s influence, leadership, and scholarship cast a longer shadow, and the next pope is faced with the extraordinary knowledge that the only guy alive who knows what the job is like is only a text or a tweet away.