The Church Celebrates the First Anniversary of Pope Francis

Pope Francis bows as he appears for first time on balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013 (Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring, February 27, 2014)

It has been a year since the white smoke appeared from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, and what a year it has been.  Inside the conclave moments earlier there had been intense silence and prayer as the cardinals opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit.  Now, outside was a frenzy of excitement in a roaring Saint Peter’s Square as people cheered first, “Habemus Papam! (We have a Pope!)” and then “Viva il Papa!  (Long Live the Pope!)”  Since they did not even know who the next pontiff was, these voices highlighted people’s understanding of the Pope’s importance.  He is the living continuity with Peter and therefore with Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not well known before, but when he stepped out as Pope Francis, the 265th Successor to Peter, from that moment until now, he has set a vibrant tone and become a focal point of faith renewal in the lives of many people.  Our Holy Father, who began by bowing down and asking for our prayers, has captured the popular imagination, from being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year to being featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.  Everywhere we turn, people are abuzz about Francis.

Who is this Pope?  During the interview published in America magazine he humbly answered, “I am a sinner.”  This self-identification should not be news to anyone – we are all sinners.  Yet everywhere we see Pope Francis’ smile reflecting joy.  The reason for his joy?  It is, he tells us, the overwhelming blessing of God’s love as we journey through life.  Although sinners, we are sinners “whom the Lord has looked upon,” as he further said.

This truth we cannot keep to ourselves, the Pope emphasizes in his Message for Lent 2014 – “wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.”

So attractive is this timely message that three million people came out to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last year.  In his Message for World Youth Day 2014, which is celebrated at the local level, our Holy Father again reveals the joy of the Gospel, “We face so many challenges in life: poverty, distress, humiliation, the struggle for justice, persecutions, the difficulty of daily conversion, the effort to remain faithful to our call to holiness, and many others. But if we open the door to Jesus and allow him to be part of our lives, if we share our joys and sorrows with him, then we will experience the peace and joy that only God, who is infinite love, can give.”

By what he does and how he does it, by what he says and how he says it – calling us to fraternity, solidarity and the imperative of seeing Christ in others, particularly the marginalized, saying “go out,” “invite,” “welcome,” “embrace,” “be there with and for others” – Pope Francis offers a new moment of grace, outreach and renewal.  He is not changing the teaching of what is the Gospel, he is emphasizing how you do the Gospel – how you live the saving message of Jesus.  What Pope Francis is doing is the New Evangelization – re-proposing the perennial truth of the Good News in ways that are new only in ardor, methods and expression, speaking to the hearts of others so as to attract and stir up in them a new awareness and familiarity with the uncomplicated and tangible treasure of Christ’s love.

In this providential moment, people seem to be more open to receiving that message, especially those who have been disaffected from the Church.  This, we believe, is the Holy Spirit in action.  From the Pope’s election until now we can recognize the Spirit at work as the principal agent of an inviting and engaging evangelization initiative.

The invitation of Pope Francis to a fresh way of living the Gospel is a bright beacon of hope in our world.  Let us offer thanks to God for this pastor of souls.  Viva il Papa!