Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

A funny thing happened on the way to the Vatican


St Peter's Square, crowded, at nightI'd just finished teaching for the day, at the Gregorian University where I'm a visiting professor, when I heard the news. The first clue was the bells: as the white smoke goes up, the bells at St Peter's start ringing and, through a centuries-old tradition, the tolling cascades from one belfry to the next. It took a full two minutes for the bells of the churches near the Gregorian to ring. A tweet would have been quicker, but not as poetic.

At that moment a Polish nun in full habit ran past me shouting fermata bianca, fermata bianca. Sister was excited. And suddenly so was I. These last days have seen this extraordinary Catholic theatre: where 115 men talk to the world via a chimney. It was time for the 'big reveal'. I now know where reality TV gets this stuff.

There are moments in your life when the effort is worth it. St Peter's is a good 25 minutes walk from where I am living. It was cold and drizzling. I could have watched it all on TV. But sometimes you just have to be there.

Every road led to the Vatican. Even what passes for Roman road rules were in suspension. I'm not sure I've ever  felt such a group buzz before. At the Square, 100,000 gathered to see history. Being a single traveller has its advantages: I got a great spot in front of the left-hand Bernini fountain. It's a prime spot for the huge screen.

You might think that up-close in the Square would be best. But wherever you are, when the human beings emerge on that balcony you realise how far away it is. It should be no surprise that as a cinema scholar I thanked God for the big screen! But, the Oscar goes to ... the Square's sound designer. Modern acoustics meets a Renaissance masterpiece. Every word perfectly surrounded Bernini's columns.

At 8.06pm the lights went on in the balcony loggia and the crowd went wild. It took another nine minutes for a Cardinal to appear and tell us that Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected Pope Francis I.

Jorge who? I was the only one nearby who knew his name and that he was a Jesuit. In fact I'd been on a panel on Ireland's RTE radio last Monday where he was talked about and where their Vatican correspondent, Gerald O'Connell, said he could be the compromise candidate. I told Geraldine Doogue the same thing in an interview for Compass the next day. I hope she was impressed with my skills as a prophet, as I am by O'Connell's.

Because I knew more than anyone else about our new Holy Father, I became our area's papal expert. All I knew was that he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, 76, a Jesuit, and was runner-up to Benedict last time. The rest I made up and sounded authoritative. My new disciples lapped it up. I was translated into several languages. If only more of my books would be!

Francis stood there for what seemed like the cruellest time. I realised why members of royal families never appear on balconies alone. You can only wave so often. That's why they come in twos and chat and wave and chat and wave. The new Pope had 73 minutes to stand and wave, and no one to chat with. He looked stunned.

There was conjecture about who and why 'Francis'. I started giving out my well-known class on 'boy saints whose names begin with F', and confidently asserted that it was a complex mix of Assisi, Xavier and Borgia.

A Latvian woman nearby interjected, 'No Borgia could have become a saint'. She failed my class, but later my own mark went down as well because I learned that the truth is not as convoluted as my theory was. It is all about Frank Assisi's mission to rebuild Christ's Church. That will do me, and there is a lot of work to do.

Then we got the Buena sera and the Latin Americans went nuts. Understandably. This guy is now the most famous Argentine ever, jumping to first place over Che, Evita and Maradona. Like 'Francis', they specialise in one-name handles too, but with friends like that ...

He went on to speak as one 'who presides over all the churches in charity ... a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust between us'. Not lost on me. He is no mere ruler. He is a pastor, a leader who knows that the best way to get others to follow is to empower them and lead by example. I felt a bit empowered just listening to him.

Before he gave us his blessing, he asked us to be silent and pray for him, then bent in a reverential bow, before God, before us in the Square, and the world. And 100,000 people were immediately obedient. Still. Silent. We recognised he was a humble man who understood something about holiness. We all bow in awe before mystery.

In the end he laughed and said, 'Good night and have a good rest,' and turned and walked inside. It felt like your grandpa saying 'It's been a big day, and it is way past all our bed times.'

He later refused the papal limousine back to the Cardinal's house. He rode the bus with the rest of the boys. I rode the bus home too: my trip was packed, uncomfortable and rocky. The journey ahead for the Church might be, too. But at least our driver might know the way, because at heart he is, it seems, a fellow traveller. 

Richard Leonard headshotFr Richard Leonard, SJ, directs the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting and is a visiting professor at the Georgian University, Rome. He is the author of several books including most recently Why Bother Praying.

Topic tags: Richard Leonard, Pope Francis, curia



submit a comment

Existing comments

Love the image on the buses at the end ... the onward journey looks like being an interesting one!

Michelle Coram | 15 March 2013  

The choice of the name Francis prompts us to connect with the saint of Assisi and his commitment to a life of poverty. Readers of the original story become aware though that not only did Francis come from a wealthy family, he was a trader in the family business, especially in France. Hence his nickname, ‘the Frenchman’. Francis did many things that ran counter to economic wisdom: he started giving away his father’s property and ultimately rejected his patrimony in a lawsuit. This aspect of a “commitment to poverty” is not one that will be quickly embraced by many of the other cardinals who elected Jorge Bergoglio. The rise of the Franciscan order after the founder’s death is one of the great and oft cited ironies of church history. Although his example of humility and poverty continues to inspire many people, one has to consider also the battles over the incredible wealth accrued by the Franciscans in the first couple of generations. Oscar Wilde once said, there have only ever been two Christians: Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi. It is a typical piece of ludic surprise from Oscar, but there are days when I know what he’s getting at.

PHILIP HARVEY | 16 March 2013  

Thanks Richard a lovely human perspective, lots of beautiful images.

Phil van Brunschot (Mrs) | 18 March 2013  

I do understand the excitement about the newly elected pope. I am, however getting sick of the never ending repetition about the humbleness an same examples of ordinary behaviour of pope Francis. Maybe we should ask why not more (or even all) of the priests, bishops, and cardinals behave in a humbler way, rather than setting themselves apart.

Manfred Hacker | 18 March 2013  

I agree Phil. The above is a delightful piece of prose, typical of Eureka Street. How come your "poetry" is so awful?

grebo | 18 March 2013  

Sorry to be pedantic but I am sure the Polish nun didn't shout 'fermata bianca' which means 'white stop' as in 'bus' nor did the Pope wish everyone a hybrid Spanish- Italian 'buena sera' but buona sera'.Still, unlike the ABC initially, at least Richard got the Pope's name and origins right!

Duncan MacLaren | 18 March 2013  

Yes, Duncan. I think "fumare bianca" is more likely.

ErikH | 18 March 2013  

Thanks Grebo. What poetry do you have in mind, in particular?

PHILIP HARVEY | 19 March 2013  

Similar Articles

Rudd right not to run

  • Frank Brennan
  • 22 March 2013

Some lamented that Rudd had abandoned his own supporters to their fate. But what political morality would dictate that he break his word simply because Crean had decided an immediate challenge was the only available circuit breaker for the woes of a dysfunctional divided Labor Party?


Pope Francis' unfinished business with the poor

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 21 March 2013

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the poor was explored most seriously in Latin America. I caught its dimensions most vividly in a dawn trip on a clapped out US school bus to a small regional town in El Salvador.