The big screen at Seattle Athletic Club showed Rome’s St. Peter’s Square filled with people festively waiting for the announcement and the appearance of the new pope. I am always rushing, on to the next class, on to the next place, to the next appointment. However, the sight of so many people joyfully gathered to welcome St. Peter’s new successor stopped me in my tracks.
My mind went back to a time in my childhood. It was the end of March, 1972, and my family and I were in Rome. It was my first visit to Italy. I was 10 years old and saw hills (and later mountains in Sicily) for the first time. I met my Nonna for the first time and I ate green almonds for the first time and got a tummy ache. I was a gawky 10-year old little girl and I ate roasted goats’ testicles on a dare by my male cousins, and I believed in Jesus.
I walked around Rome with my parents and my beautiful teenaged sisters. I marveled at the vastness and the opulence of that ancient city. Observing the serene excitement on my parents’ faces made me the happiest child in the world. We were Catholics, my parents were Italian, and my cousin, Padre Vincenzo, was a priest living in Rome and showing us around. I felt very special. We were a part of this ministry started by Jesus so many years ago. My little-girl-mind believed in Miracles. Miracles happened. A Man-God born of a Virgin died for me and every human, so that we could be saved from eternal suffering. None of this made much sense to the little girl I once was, but I believed what I was taught. I was happy because I had parents who loved me and took care of me, and made great sacrifices so they could afford to send me to Catholic school where I learned my prayers, my faith, Latin, how to be a good Catholic girl, how to turn the other cheek, how to forgive, how to believe in Jesus, Mary, Joseph, God, all the saints, and how to get shivers up and down my spine every time I saw a cross or a thorn.
Fast forward to August 6, 1978. I was 16 visiting our home village of Grotte with my parents and relatives. We were staying at Nonna’s house when suddenly, one morning, we heard WAILING. Women were Wailing and the Wailing was like an Eerie Siren going off at night. My Nonna blanched, rushed over to open her big wooden doors and now Sicilian Words came with the Wailing:
Muri lu Papa
Muri lu Papa
Muri Muri Muri…..
Pope Paul VI was dead. The whole town was Wailing and my antsy 16 year-old self had to sit through their Grieving. A Flock without a Shepherd, a Religion without an Earthly Leader is Utter Chaos, is Terribly Frightening. Anything could happen, my Nonna explained to me. The village Wailed. Then the village went Silent. Rosaries were held in bony mottled hands. I heard Prayers of Strength, Prayers for the Departed Soul of Pope Paul VI, Prayers for New Leadership, Prayers for Peace, Prayers to Dispel the Fear.
My dad wanted to dash over to Rome to witness the appointment of another pope. He dreamed of being in St. Peter’s Square with 25,000 Faithful Catholics, to wait and see the White Smoke emerge from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Chimney, but for some reason or other, we did not go. And it is a good thing we did not go. It took 20 days to elect the new pope. And the newly elected pope only lived 33 days after becoming Pope John Paul I. (This short-lived pope was followed by John Paul II who served as pope for 26 years).
Back at Seattle Athletic Club today, everyone was gathering around the big screen TV, equally curious or excited to hear who would be the new pope. We all waited for the announcement and for him to appear on the Balcony overlooking the 25,000 people gathered below.
It was 8:20 pm in Rome, nighttime, and raining lightly. Umbrellas and banners dotted the square. Finally, the balcony door opened and we “met” the new Argentinian, Jesuit, Under-80-Years-Of-Age, Scientist Successor to St. Peter: Pope Francis I.
The new pope appeared to be mesmerized by the welcoming crowd. At first he seemed nervous! Was he thinking, “Dio, why me?” or “So be it! I have inherited a mess, but I will do my best!” or “Ah, if my mother could see my now!” Then he seemed to relax and his eyes twinkled. I noted his soft warm features and marveled at how he joked with the crowd and put everyone at ease. He is, I dare say, charismatic! Can Pope Francis I put faith back in my heart? I am suddenly moved to tears. What can I say? See, I believe in possibilities!
This pope represents Hope. As a scientist, perhaps he will accept the theory of Evolution or teach about the Interdependence of all Life? Perhaps he will give a voice to and protect Mother Nature? Perhaps he will give equal rights to women in the church, allow women to be ordained priests, and give the nuns the respect they so deserve, more authority, and a Voice to be heard? Can he separate religion from politics?
If he is to live up to what St. Francis is said to have embraced, then this new pope may well be a champion of the poor, a man who chooses a life of simplicity, a spiritual leader rather than a political one, a voice for the environment and for all living creatures, all wildlife! In keeping with St. Francis, will this new pope call birds and animals his brothers and sisters? Will he speak for the underprivileged and will he teach that we are not superior simply because we are humans and that we are not separate from the rest of nature?
Can he reach out to other religions and spiritual leaders, advocating a new human perspective where love and respect, caring and tolerance of everyone, and service to humanity is the key to surviving in this world? Can he teach the world to accept and love everyone? Will priests be allowed to marry? Will he embrace gays? Will he allow birth control? Can he help move us into a new era of enlightenment, into a deeper spirituality where the universal teachings of Jesus shine: love your enemies, do good, see God in all, be charitable, dedicate your life to the service of humanity.
One of the most pressing questions is this: can the new pope make amends to the sexually abused children who have suffered from the hands of the perverted priests?
I don’t know the answers to the above questions, but I do believe there is a fighting chance. There is always the possibility for change, to ask questions, to dream of and instigate change.
There are so many unknowns, but one thing is certain: