The day Pope Benedict XVI resigned a lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica. On the day the Cardinal-Electors were inside the Sistine Chapel to elect his successor, a seagull was seen perched atop the six-foot chimney of the chapel as if awaiting the smoke that would announce the election. What are the odds that on the day the leader of the Catholic Church announced his retirement, a lightning bolt would strike the very tip of the spire at the center of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, by tradition the burial site of St. Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church? Or is it a strange coincidence that on the day Pope Francis was to be elected pope, at least two birds would seat on top of the chapel’s smokestack, sometimes immobile for hours on end, to be witnessed by the expectant crowd in St. Peter’s Square including the millions around the world who were watching on television.
The symbolism was not lost to many, especially to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the globe. Is it God’s mystical way of manifesting himself to his Church beset by an ever deepening crisis? Is it His expression of abiding care for a church in the midst of trials and tribulation?
In the 2000 year history of Christianity, the church has encountered myriads of challenges and trials, sometimes even racking it to its very foundations. The persecution of the early Christians, the emergence of heretical teachings that challenged its dogmatic teachings like Gnosticism, Montanism, Nestorianism, Arianism and even the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the list goes on and on; from a great temporal and spiritual power in the Middle Ages it has waned into a religious institution divested of the political power and influence of the past.
In the contemporary times, the Catholic Church, while still a relevant religious institution considering its 1.2 billion members, has not only lost the influence it used to enjoy but is facing a deepening crisis. No thanks to the inroads of secularism and modernism that subscribe to the belief that human destiny is a matter of choice and not determined by a supreme being. These emergent doctrines and philosophies are at the root of social issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, contraception, liberation theology among others that remain at the center of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and the secular powers.
Pope Francis will have his hands full as he steers the Roman Catholic Church into clear waters. Compounding the problem of secularism are other equally problematic issues facing the church like clerical sexual abuse that exploded during the reign of Benedict XVI, squabbles within the Roman curia and allegations of corruption from within according to Vatileaks, and even the diminishing number of religious vocation among the faithful.
The ascension of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, promises to be auspicious for the Roman Catholic Church. He is a man imbued with deep humility, a religious formator, doctrinal conservatist and committed to social justice. If at all, his choice of the title Francis is an indication of his intent to follow the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, himself a man of the poor and an effective reformer of his time. It is an indication that the new pope has every intent to bring the church back to its basics, that is, follow the example of Christ, even in his humility, charity, poverty and obedience to the Father. With Pope Francis at the helm, we can expect a church devoid of pomp, even more committed to the poor, “a church that is poor for the poor”, one that will reach out to the people instead of being self-preferential.
At 76, Pope Francis is only 2 years younger than his predecessor Benedict XVI when he assumed the papacy on April 19, 2005. For many, his age is a minus factor considering that Pope Benedict XVI abdicated citing decreased physical and emotional faculties due to his ailing age. Because of this, he might not have the vim and vitality to lead the church in these difficult times. At the pre-conclave, he was a remote choice and seldom registered as a papabili, maybe because of his advanced age. Yet, the cardinal-electors chose for a leader an unlikely man in the person of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. In fact, his election defied all expectations and convention being the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, first non-European pope since Syrian St. Gregory III.
But then again, for us Catholics, we believe it is ultimately the Holy Spirit that got him elected. The cardinal-electors were merely His instruments. Pope Francis is not a happenstance but the deliberate design of a mysterious and inscrutable God. For whatever reason beyond man’s comprehension, God anointed him to lead the church being the right man for the job.
In the end, Pope Francis and the faithful can always find solace in the words of Christ himself: “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.” And on another instance, our Lord, after exhorting His disciples to observe His commandments, assured them that He will always be with them, even to the end of the ages.”