The biggest moment in the world

Story highlights

  • Bob Greene: Before radio, TV, pope's appearance was most dramatic way to announce news
  • New pope's appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's is a moment like no other, he says
  • Greene: You could see the impact of the moment in the pope's eyes

You could see it in his eyes.

Even before Pope Francis spoke his first words to the throngs in St. Peter's Square, you could look into his eyes and sense the wonder.

The world was looking at him. But he was looking at something, too: at all those upturned faces. At all the eyes staring back at him.

Nothing can possibly prepare a person for such a sight.

In this life, there are moments, and then there are Moments. The first appearance of a new pope on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica has always been a Moment like no other.

Bob Greene

Before there was telegraphy, before there was radio, before there was television, before there was the Internet, before there was Twitter, the vision -- the solemn orchestration -- of a newly elected pope stepping onto the balcony was the most dramatic possible way of bringing huge news to the world.

It somehow still is.

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    "I would like to thank you for your embrace," the new pope said, gazing out at all those eyes.

    When authors and orators have searched for ways to express the ultimate example of reverential exaltation, the periodically repeated scene in St. Peter's Square, down through the centuries, has often been the one they have turned to.

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    Tom Wolfe, in his book "The Right Stuff," about the original Mercury astronauts, wanted to describe for readers just what level of devotion the newly named astronauts had received from the American people. The seven pilots had been just that -- fighter pilots, test pilots -- before being selected for the space program. Suddenly, they were something else. People would see them and begin crying.

    Wolfe came up with the one ideal analogy to portray the phenomenon:

    "The boys wouldn't have minded the following. They wouldn't have minded appearing once a year on a balcony over a huge square in which half the world is assembled. They wave. The world roars its approval, its applause, and breaks into a thirty-minute storm of cheers and tears. ... A little adulation on the order of the Pope's; that's all the True Brothers at the top of the pyramid really wanted."

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    But humility is not required of fighter pilots and astronauts. Nor is it required of rock stars or professional athletes or any of the many other public performers, in disparate venues, who are regularly introduced with carefully planned and marketed majesty designed to elevate them in the eyes of their audiences.

    A pope is different, and his introduction to the world is like no other. When Wednesday morning dawned in Rome, a man named Jorge Mario Bergoglio was one of millions of people preparing to commence the new day.

    By the time the day was over, he was no longer Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and he was no longer one of millions.

    As Pope Francis, he stepped onto that balcony and was greeted by that sight.

    From behind his eyeglasses, he took it all in.

    The eyes of the world met his.

    He asked for prayers.

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