Do you remember where you were when you saw the white smoke?
Ten years ago this week, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope—one of the most surprising popes in a growing line of unpredictable successors of Saint Peter.
John XXIII surprised the world (and the church) with the Second Vatican Council.
Paul VI surprised the world with his authentic modernity, retiring antique emblems of authority such as the papal tiara and sedia gestatoria (the portable papal chair), and speaking to all humanity from the bully pulpit of the United Nations.
John Paul I surprised the world with the papacy’s first-ever double name—and his 33-day pontificate.
John Paul II surprised us in ways only 900-page biographies can account for—not the least of which was his unprecedented enthusiasm for interfaith dialogue.
Benedict XVI surprised us with his refusal to be John Paul III and his dedication to sincere dialogue with the secular world.
The first Jesuit pope. The first pope from the Americas. The first pope to take the name Francis.
And that was just his first day on the job.
Since March 13, 2013, there have been many more surprises—including his commitment to an un-Vatican lifestyle of simplicity, his famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, and Christianity’s first papal encyclical on climate change.
These are no small things.
But Francis entered the papacy as the church faced enormous challenges.
Daily the ongoing sexual abuse crisis drains the church of money, members, and moral credibility. Internal divisions and the question of its own relevance haunt the church. And ingrained clericalism and sexism only escalate the flight of young people to the realm of the “nones”—that is, the expanding population of folks who when asked to identify their faith choose “none of the above.”
A decade ago, many observers were eager to track a “Francis Effect,” hoping this new pope named after the world’s favorite saint would boost love for the poor, love of nature, and love of peace.
And in many ways he has.
Francis continues to demonstrate increasing openness to women leaders in the church, to LGBTQ Catholics seeking acceptance in their own church, to divorced and remarried Catholics eager to serve, and to all people of good will who hunger and thirst for justice.
In the Benedictine world, we have special affection for the Jesuit pope named Francis.
In his pandemic encyclical on social friendship, Fratelli Tutti, Francis praised the way of Saint Benedict, especially the practice of “the sacred duty of hospitality.” For Francis, true hospitality means recognition of the “gift present in an encounter with those outside one’s own circle,” a readiness to move beyond ourselves in openness to others.
As Francis enters his second decade in one of the world’s most unusual jobs, we can all contribute to the still anticipated Francis Effect, which is also a Benedict Effect.
May God bless our current pope of surprises!
Dr. Peter A. Huff
Chief Mission Officer and Director, Center for Benedictine Values