Earlier today, mid-afternoon eastern time, white smoke billowed from the temporary chimney erected above the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the bells tolled and the frenzy of people in St. Peter’s Square all combined to signal the impending announcement, “Habemus Papam!” – “We have a Pope!”
From the balcony, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was introduced to the crowd as Pope Francis – the first pope ever elected from the Americas. The new 77 year old pontiff, representing more than 501 million Catholics in Latin America, was elected on the 4th ballot as as many of the 58 Italian Cardinals crossed over to support the 19 Cardinals from Latin America. Those familiar with the politics of the situation indicated that the 501 million Catholics in Central and South America represented almost 10 times the number of Italian Catholics – and almost half of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world.
It would seem that a loud message is being sent that the church must respond to the growing Catholic areas of the world, including the Americas and also Africa. In fact, over the last several years, it has generally been acknowledged that for the first time in hundreds of years, the Catholic population of Europe is diminishing.
The choice of the name Francis is even more startling. The new pope chose the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy Italian family who renounced his family wealth and lived a life dedicated to serving the marginalized and the poor. Several officials seemed surprised that the new pope chose such a name. After all, St. Francis is such an icon in the church that no other pope has ever chosen the name for himself. In fact, the new pope also refused to wear the traditional red cape that covers the white robe of the papacy when he was introduced to the crowd. In a further departure from the norm, Pope Francis also requested that the crowd bless and pray for him before he blessed the assembled masses in the Square.
This whole sequence of events leading to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was incredibly unusual. The 85 year old pontiff decided to resign 8 years into his papacy, citing declining health as a major reason for his decision. He indicated that he will lead a life of quiet prayer, although he has decided that he will retire and live in the Vatican, will continue to wear the white cossack of the papacy and will also continued to be referred to as “Your Holiness” – a title reserved for the Pope himself. This has led to some officials to worry that the Emeritus Pope, the moniker Benedict XVI has chosen as his new title, will have influence in the new regime – a charge that Benedict vehemently denies. In fact, Benedict has pledged his full devotion and submission to the new pontiff.
Benedict also signed into papal law a new provision that the Cardinals must publicly affirm their allegiance to the new pope during his public installation – in addition to the private rituals that happen prior to the presentation of the pope to the masses waiting outside. But Benedict isn’t the first pope to resign. The last time this happened was in 1415, when Pope Gregory XII resigned 10 years into his tenure – a move he designed to step aside and let a new pope be chosen who could unify the church. In fact, some onlookers believe that Benedict’s decision was made in part due to the divisiveness in the church – for the last 30 years, Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II both looked outward rather than being overly concerned with the legal affairs and inner workings of the church. It took more than 2 years to choose a successor to Gregory XII – only several days for Pope Francis to ascend the papacy.
Pope Celestine V also resigned, in 1294, only 3 months into his tenure. He had accepted the papacy under duress and fled to the mountains to escape his responsibilities. His successor, Boniface VIII, was worried that Celestine set a bad example and so ordered Celestine imprisoned as he was trying to flee to Greece. He died in captivity two years later at the age of 81. There have also been reports of the papacy being sold from one pope to his godfather, back in around 1032. The elder pope was then asked to step down because he had obtained the papacy through a bribe. In fact, there was also a married pope – and even a woman pope way back in history. That is why there is a private examination after the papal election to insure that the new pontiff is indeed male before the trappings of the office are bestowed on him.
Through all these years, and the 265 popes prior to Pope Francis, none has taken the name of the first pope, Peter. Because nobody has felt worthy to be compared to the apostle Peter, one of Christ’s disciples and the one who preached the first sermon in the Acts 2 church on Pentecost. He was most assuredly special and will probably go down in history without anyone assuming his name. The verse for tonight is the one that Christ spoke to Peter when Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah. we are told in Matthew 16:16-18, “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
My encouragement this evening is to let you know that Christ still, to this day, desires for us to follow Him. My prayer is that, regardless of your faith background, you will pray that God will bless the ministry of Pope Francis and that he will lead a God centered life – being a model of Christian behavior and a light unto the entire world. Blessings, Pope Francis. “Viva il Papa” – Long Live the Pope… Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…