March 10-16, 2013

I don’t think I could ever forget this whirlwind week.

I had been Catholic eight months and was on a road trip with some college friends in my ’92 Buick Century station wagon (complete with wood paneling). We went to Philly, Manhattan, Pittsburgh, the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and finally Cleveland. We arrived at the Mistake on the Lake the day before the Pope’s election.

Pope Benedict’s resignation had crushed me. Not only was he the Pope when I was received into the Church, but he was a father-figure. I looked to him as the prime living example of how to match faith and works, love and thoughtfulness. If you ask anyone who knew me then, the day he announced his resignation was a day spent in solitude, silence, and stressful chain-smoking. I felt as if this was some kind of a blow to the Church, as if the Pope had died without dying. A new pope? How could we have a new one? I had hardly gotten used to my first. Little did I understand then that one Pope’s exit would not stop me from loving his successor.

In Cleveland, I was on smoke watch. (We took shifts, but I was always on smoke watch regardless.) I had alerts set on my phone. The latest vote ended. I turned on the TV and after a few moments shouted through the house, “White Smoke!” Everyone came running. Shushing and exclaiming and a cardinal emerging: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum… Habemus papam!” I announce to you a great joy… we have a pope!

My Latin was much weaker then but it was perhaps the best in the room, and all I could make out were selections: Cardinal Bergoglio, a name I didn’t recognize, and then, “Francescum.” One of my friends turned to me and said, “Who is it?” I replied, “I don’t know him. He’s Francis.” My friends racked their brains: “What cardinal’s name is Francis? Arinze?”

“No,” I said, “The Pope. His name is Francis.”

Then a whirlwind of cheers, and Benedict’s coat of arms on the loggia, and watching every movement of the curtains.

There he was. He walked out and waved a little wave. He stood and eyed the crowd in silence. He looked afraid.

“He’s adorable!” said two of them. “Look at his ears!”

“He’s tiny,” said the third, “He’s really old. He looks like a nice guy.”

Francis stayed still for what seemed forever, until he finally said his infamous, “Buona sera.” The crowd lost its mind. I leaned in to look into the eyes of this unknown man. And then I saw something shift. I remember it from the first minutes on the loggia. Apprehension, fear, hesitation; they were gone with “buona sera.” I saw the flame spark to life and swallow up the dread that had consumed his face. He asked for prayer for his predecessor.

“No,” I said, now taking on the fear that had left the face on TV. “There is a fire in that man’s eyes.” Nobody knew what I meant. I don’t even know if I knew. I certainly do now.

And then he said something else and bowed. My friends had seen one other pope elected; I had not. I didn’t know what was protocol and what wasn’t. “What’s he doing?” they asked. “He wants us to pray for him,” I said, not knowing it wasn’t the most natural request in the world.

That was it. He was gone. We had a pope, and I had a pizza. In the last six years, I have never stopped praying for him.

Viva il Papa!

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