Habemus Papam! We have a pope! That was the word, or rather the words, from St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday, and it wasn't just a worldwide church that had awaited the news but the world itself. And the news was good, as in the Good News. For suddenly the air in Rome and far beyond seemed filled with a hope that was almost palpable.
Habemus Papam! Even as the white smoke was still drifting, spirits were lifting. And then the name that the new pope had chosen for himself was announced: Francis. As in Francis of Assisi, saint and exemplar. A good sign and more than a sign: May it be an augury of a new simplicity, a new connection to the flock, a new leadership not by words alone, just as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has now become simply Francis.
Habemus Papam! If his church has a new pope, the old cardinal has a new name, a new identity, a new persona. What's in a name? As much as the named can make of it, as much as the name can make of him. In a way, the new pope has been born again, christened again, dedicated again, and neither he nor his church may remain the same. It's an old, old story — as old as Abram becoming Abraham and Jacob becoming Israel. Nothing was ever the same after that — for the newly named or all those he would transform in turn.
Habemus Papam! His church may have a new pope, yet this new Bishop of Rome remains the same person, the cardinal within the pope, the Abram within Abraham, the Jacob within Israel, even as he acquires a new identity, For he remains the same person, only transformed. The way true Christians do even as they convert to their faith continually, from day to day and hour to hour and breath to breath by His grace.
Habemus Papam! This new pope and old cardinal was following in the footsteps of Francis the First, the one from Assisi, long before he adopted his new name. He didn't live in the cardinal's official residence in Buenos Aires, the church's equivalent of the state's Casa Rosada in that beautiful old Belle Epoque capital with its wide boulevards and vast vistas east to the sea and west to the Pampas.
This prince of the church didn't act like royalty. He rode the bus, not in a limo. He lived in a simple apartment. He cooked for himself, thank you. He seemed familiar with the poorest parts of that great city, and at ease with its poorest people. For he identified with the poor not as some amorphous mass to be raised up by an omniscient state but souls to care for one by one, just as God made us. Not for him the pat phrases of the Peronistas, who flattered the poor while fattening themselves.
He was never an orator addressing the masses but a presence among them. This cardinal spoke most eloquently when he spoke not at all. "Preach often," the first Francis is said to have told his brothers in the order, "and use words if necessary." This cardinal didn't seem to find them all that necessary. His ways were more those of a parish priest.
Habemus Papam! We have a pope! And he has already begun to preach, simply and well, by his choice of a blessed name. As a cardinal, he spoke, he preached, he acted best when he used no words at all. Before he blessed Rome and the world, urbi et orbi, the city and the world, this new pope asked all to pray for him, and then ... paused. Waiting. Listening. A silence seemed to descend, a blessed silence, a golden silence, a hopeful silence that words would only have interrupted. It was the soundless sound of hope.
Habemus Papam! Praying with this new pope, listening and hoping with him, strangely enough, or maybe not strangely at all, a childhood memory returned — that of a rabbi in his humble basement classroom long ago and far away from Rome, but just as close to God.
It was there in that little room in these distant latitudes, every weekday afternoon once grammar school had let out, that the old rabbi taught the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, and the beginning of all the wonders it could conjure. He taught it to a bunch of rambunctious boys who were as full of questions as they were of mischief. And when they would ask their questions, their rabbi and teacher would never answer quickly. Instead, he, too, like this new pope, would pause, as if to say: This is important. Be still and listen.
Habemus Papam! We have a pope! And the city and the world, the church and all in the world who look to it and wish it well, and pray it be a light unto the nations, will welcome him. May all listen as he listens. In hope. In faith. In charity. And in service. The world may have been redeemed long ago, but does the world know it? It still waits to be perfected — through words and, better, through silence.
Habemus Papam! We have a new pope and, better, a new Francis. It is a good name. May it prove a good sign.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)