As papal transitions go, this has been a big one. My last article on Pope Francis's "painful" liturgies—and the small storm of discussion it sparked—helped to show that no matter what your "official position" on the new pope's style of ministry, something colossal is upon us.
Rather than pandering to the separatists, however—risking a flight of fancy through idle speculation or well-intentioned navel-gazing—there's plenty to be said on the nature of the papal transition, itself. More to the point, there are comments that ought to be made—and that so far haven't been—that would convey the reality of Pope Francis's accession in much less solemn terms than those mainly imposed to date.
In a word, there's a mundane dimension to the succession of popes that, in this particular case, has been unfortunately clouded by the spectacle of mondanity, itself. And it's a dimension that deserves a fair hearing, now more than ever.
Many believe that Pope Francis, in his early yet austere approach to the Petrine ministry, has trod too quickly upon centuries of papal precedent and decorum. To this, I'd suggest recalling the advent of Papa Ratzinger in 2005. Recount, specifically, the unknown excitement at his election, as well as the steady hand he showed in guiding the College of Cardinals, of which he was dean, through John Paul's illness, death, and funeral, into conclave, and back toward life as usual as their new head.
It's safe to say that the Ratzinger of 2005 was not the same Pope Benedict XVI many remember fondly today. There were plenty of expectations that, upon his election, the Panzer Cardinal would clean house, take names, and promote a vision of the Church governed by Inquisition-style severity. Of course, this never happened. What did emerge, on the other hand, was a papal personality characterized by Benedict's quiet charm and abiding desire to teach. The progression from his early to late pontificate was slow, yet all along it was moved, we can be sure, by an ever-deepening appreciation for the office—an appreciation proxied through the very personal affections and dispositions of the man, Joseph Ratzinger.
If Pope Francis seems to be ruining what we know of the papacy, perhaps it's only the early stages of a similar event. This time, however, the Successor of Peter was most recently the archbishop of Buenos Aires; he was in large part disconnected from the Roman Curia, and instead was entrenched deeply in the spiritual and political ailments of a local church that faced the most extreme types of oppression our age has to offer—not as an intellectual observer, mind you, but as chief shepherd. Archbishop Bergoglio was formed in the crucible of pastoral ministry for decades; it's officially and understandably part of his DNA.
Although we're keen to emphasize the particular differences of a Benedictine and Franciscan papacy, one pragmatic detail—indeed, a most mundane one—endures: in both cases, the man elected to the See of Rome made no immediate distinction between his identity as pope and his identity as the man in the white soutane. Both Ratzinger and Bergoglio went into conclave as cardinals and came out as popes. Yet neither emerged from the Room of Tears as the man who would complete his papacy.
Pope Francis is clearly a strong, unflinching personality, hardly daunted by the precisions of romanitas, and much more likely to sip mate with old archenemies than to feast with European princes. His style of preaching and relating can only be described as intimate—something that in its own right is the Roman style par excellence. And the pragmatism of his days as a Jesuit provincial and local pastor shines through in everything from his choice of footwear to his upcoming decision on papal housing.
If the new Holy Father excites you, then, relish the experience: he's a monumental witness to power of the Gospel in action, and one who already sheds intense light on our perfunctory confession of Christ, only occasionally crucified. On the other hand, if Papa Bergoglio terrifies you, engage the fear: a Jesuit papacy is a perfect opportunity to practice some Ignatian discernment of spirits, a most helpful guide to sifting false hopes from authentic holiness.
In the end, we can be sure, the pendulum of the papacy swings always to the center; es kann nicht anders. The office is heavily weighted, though, by the gravitas of the man who holds it. Popes are petrae—rocks—that have in the words of Francis a certain consistenza—a real substance. It's this quality that makes them fitting successors to the Apostle, upon whom such a massive, yet divinely guaranteed edifice was constructed.
To know the importance of the pope, it's well to recall his mundane origins. These are the natural qualities upon which grace builds.