The Catholic bishops of Alaska gathered this week in Juneau for various meetings. On Wednesday we were on our way to the Juneau Radio Center to meet Ben Sherman for a half hour live interview on Action Line. As we sat at the red light waiting to turn left onto Channel Drive, my phone rang. It was Deacon Charles Rohrbacher with the simple message, “Bishop, we have white smoke!” Learning that there was white smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel was a very exciting moment for the three of us—a message to the whole world that a new pope had been elected.
After being warmly greeted by the receptionist, Ben appeared and ushered us to a small recording studio. While the white smoke indicated that the new pope had been elected, we were still in the dark as to the identity of the new Holy Father. This breaking news was the thrust of the interview. But there we were, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz, OMI of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Bishop Donald J. Kettler of the Diocese of Fairbanks and myself, staring at our smart phones as we tried to answer Mr. Sherman’s questions. I apologized to him for being distracted, but he assured us that he too was watching his monitor waiting for information from ABC News.
About an hour later we learned along with the rest of the world, that the conclave had elected a 76-year-old Jesuit from Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first non-European Pope in over 1000 years, the first Pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit to ever hold that office.
On Tuesday, March 12, the first full day of the conclave, Archbishop Schwietz, Bishop Kettler, and I celebrated with parishioners from the Cathedral and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a special mass for the Election of a New Pope. Wearing red vestments symbolizing the Holy Spirit, we prayed that the Spirit would guide the discernment of the Cardinals who had entered into conclave the night before. The next morning it appeared that, like the previous day, balloting would produce black smoke indicating that no one had the two-thirds plus one majority.
But the Holy Spirit did not disappoint us! What a welcome and joyous surprise! The election of the first Pope in modern times from outside of Europe illustrates both the nature of the universal Church and the strong bonds of communion and love which unite 1.2 billion Catholics despite differences of language, ethnicity, race, culture and nationality.
As the new Holy Father stood on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, I was moved by his humility and prayerfulness. He spoke simply, and before offering his apostolic blessing on those present and on the entire world, he paused and asked those witnessing the moment for their blessing. He requested that they offer a silent prayer asking God to bless him, as he bowed before those in St. Peter’s Square as well as before the entire world.
The name he has taken, Francis, speaks of humility and deep faith. St. Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi, was and remains the most beloved saint among Christians across denominational lines. St. Francis was filled with an exuberant love for God and with gratitude for God’s creation. In his unbounded love for Jesus, St. Francis joyfully lived poverty and sought to be close to the poor. He embraced, literally, the most feared and ostracized people in his society, those who suffered from leprosy. And St. Francis was so united with the sufferings of Christ that in his final years he bore the marks of Christ’s suffering, the stigmata, on his own body.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has been a persistent and tireless advocate of the poor, in both his eloquent words and in his way of life. For many years he took the bus or the subway to work, and lived alone in a small apartment. When he became a cardinal, he urged those in Argentina who were planning to come to Rome for his installation to stay home and donate to the poor the money they would have used to travel. And for me, the photos I have seen of him washing the feet of single mothers and their children and those suffering from AIDS, speak eloquently to the kind of servant leadership he intends to exercise.
The announcement of Pope Francis was greeted in Rome and around the world with the ringing of church bells. In Juneau we rang the bells of the Cathedral to announce the good news. Then at noon, wearing white vestments (used for festive celebrations), the bishops of Alaska offered a Mass of thanksgiving at the Cathedral for the election of Pope Francis. We prayed that God would bless and guide our new Chief Shepherd and we sang the Te Deum, the Church’s great and ancient prayer of thanksgiving and joy.
None of the bishops of Alaska will be traveling to Rome for the installation of Pope Francis on Tuesday, March 19th, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. However, several dozen Alaskan young men and women, along with the three Alaskan bishops, are planning to travel this summer to Rio de Janeiro to celebrate World Youth Day with Pope Francis. I look forward to meeting Pope Francis in the future and extending to him the prayers and best wishes from our Catholic community and all those of good will in Southeast Alaska.