I remember “working” at my grad student job at Boston College in the Roche Center for Catholic Education with both eyes locked in on the live feed focused on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. I, along with much of the world, awaited the simple, yet dramatic, sign of white smoke that would signify a new era of Catholicism.
Though we get to experience something similar every four years in the United States, this type of event is different. Electing a Pope is not usually something that happens as often or as regularly as the election of the President of the United States. This particular papal election was even more significant in that it was preceded by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, an event about as unusual as a total solar eclipse occurring at the passing of halley’s comet (6 times in last 2,000 years to 5 papal resignations). It was, to say the least, a monumental moment in history.
As the white smoke poured forth from the chimney, expectant jubilation ensued. For a Church wracked with scandal and
uncertainty, that white smoke spoke to what was longing in our hearts: hope for a better future, a future fueled by the compassion of Christ’s mission. While we waited for the new pontiff to be presented to the throngs in St. Peter’s Square, and the watching world, we couldn’t help but wonder who this man could be. Would the Holy Spirit embolden the Cardinals to elect a man from Africa or Southeast Asia? Would they stick with the status quo and go with a European? Would they elect an American: Cardinals Sean or Dolan? Would he be an academic like Benedict XVI or social superstar like John Paul II? What name would he take? Then, out stepped a man that none of us in the United States had seen, much less heard of. As if to answer our questions, he took a name that should have told us everything we needed to know: Francis.
In my brief life, I have been extremely blessed to have experienced some of the best that the Catholic Church has to offer. I have stood twenty yards away from Pope John Paul II on one of his better days toward the end of his life. I joined a half-million others sleeping at a race track in Sydney, Australia to see Pope Benedict XVI, and then stood within arm’s reach of him a few months later in Rome. Nearly a month ago, I joined countless others to see and listen to Pope Francis in Philadelphia. I am blessed to have been in the presence of all of these men. Yet, there is something different about Francis; something that draws you into his calming presence.
The news outlets were quick to give it a name after his famous/infamous “Who am I to judge” response. I thought it was something of myth, a way to explain the impact that he has had on the world in his short time on the job. However, I now believe it is something that goes beyond the social media circus, it extends beyond what CNN and Fox News are able to cover. The impact that Pope Francis has something we have never seen before. He has the dynamism of John Paul II, an academic acumen that nearly meets that of Benedict XVI, yet still with his own flair. We all marvel at the crowds who gather to hear his message. In fact, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if a reporter snapped a photo of the pope preaching to whatever animals are left in Rome. He simply does not cease to amaze.
At the same time, Francis is not amazing. He is not unique. He is not new. In fact, the only part of him that is really impressive is that he was a Jesuit and is now pope (cue nodding in agreement). Pope Francis’s message, demeanor, his very life are nothing short of Christ’s message. What is most amazing is that we find him amazing. As Christians, we should look at his life as the status quo. Francis should be the most boring and bland person on the planet because there are about 2.2 billion people who have already heard that message. There are 2.2 billion people who should already be living a lifestyle of love, compassion, and mercy. This should be nothing new because there are about 2.2 billion people on Earth who call themselves followers of Christ. And yet, we have the so-called “Francis Effect.” It exists because it is simply that unusual for the world to see someone who lives out the teachings of Christ in a joyful and dynamic way. It is especially unusual that that individual is in a position of power.
While I hope Pope Francis continues to leave his mark on the world, more than anything, I hope that he, and his “Francis Effect,” becomes boring. Not because it’s an empty gesture, but because it becomes so common among Christians that Francis is lost among the echos of compassion and mercy resounding in our hearts. Honestly, I believe that Pope Francis hopes for the same thing.