Father Joel Camaya was in St. Peter's Square when Pope Francis was elected last year
He remembers hearing a young priest exclaim, "This is revolutionary!"
Camaya reflects on Francis' first year, hopes pope will lead "a revitalization of the church"
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Editor’s Note: Father Joel Camaya is a Catholic priest from the Philippines. He is a member of the Salesian Society of St. John Bosco. Camaya lives in Rome and is studying Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. His essay first appeared on CNN iReport.
A few days ago, I was coming home from school with a Polish priest. As we walked, he blurted out, “The smell of spring!”
We were surrounded by the scent of freshly cut grass. I looked around and realized that indeed spring had come; here and there, a number of trees had begun to bud, and the lowly but beaming margarita flower was in full bloom. One thought immediately came to my mind: It has been a year since the election of Pope Francis.
It had been raining all afternoon that day in March 2013. Despite the bad weather, many had come to St. Peter’s Square. As usual, there were flags from different nations, singing and shouting in different languages – all this had always been a staple at St. Peter’s Square. But that evening was different: People had come to see what the chimney would produce after it yielded black smoke on two earlier papal votes. I was with the throng, among those who were closest to the basilica. It was a scene of joyful anticipation.
It was already dark when white smoke poured from the chimney, telling everyone that a new pope has been chosen. Spontaneous applause and cheers filled the square, and then, as if it had been deliberately orchestrated, the sky began to clear and the evening became pleasant, cool and cloudless. Then came the tolling of the bells, the entry of the army of Swiss guards, the music played by the brass band and lights from the balcony.
A few more minutes and then appeared an elderly cardinal speaking the words: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum HABEMUS PAPAM Georgium Marium Bergoglio qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.”
There was a momentary silence. The names were not anticipated: neither Bergoglio, for he was not considered among the strong contenders, nor Francis, for no pope had previously taken that name. Suddenly, great applause followed this short lull. There were roars of approval all around, shouts of “Viva il Papa!” I distinctly heard a young priest affirming, “Francis! Oh, this is revolutionary!”
Our new Pope Francis appeared. After a short message and before giving his first apostolic blessing, he asked the people to pray for him, to beseech the Lord to bless him, their bishop. A solemn silence reigned at St. Peter’s Square. Francis broke the silence with his first blessing as pope. Then he took his leave, leaving everyone with an informal “Good night and sleep well!” To this the crowd responded in jubilation.
That evening was auspicious. There were several things that kept me awake that night. The new pope was non-European; he took the name Francis; he bowed and asked his flock to pray for him, their shepherd; he ended his first speech in a very candid, familiar greeting. And the words from the young priest: “Revolutionary!”
The weeks and months that followed confirmed the charisma of this new pope. St. Peter’s Square is always packed with huge crowds during general audiences and the Sunday Angelus. Like the candor in his first address, he ends every Sunday gathering with “Buon pranzo!” (“Have a good lunch!”) People are hanging on to what this pontiff says: the novelty in his words and deeds and how different groups would interpret them.
I took advantage of this privilege that I am in Rome to follow closely what this new pope has to say and what he does. Most of the time, I take his words from my point of view as a priest, as one who is a co-worker in ministering to the people. In sharing my thoughts and reflection on the first year of his papacy, I also take this bias of one who has the task of shepherding.
I see the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate as one of preaching joy and mercy. He told the faithful gathered at the Palm Sunday Mass: “Do not be men and women of sadness; a Christian can never be sad!” And perhaps this is what makes the pope an even more relevant figure in today’s world. Under Francis, we would expect a revitalization of the church, that he would continue to make it closer to those in the peripheries. It is an echo of the action of the other Francis, the man of Assisi, rebuilding the church of Jesus.
The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow. Perhaps it is not a mere coincidence that his pontificate coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. If Vatican II opened the windows for the spring air to come in, the papacy of Pope Francis opens the doors for the church and her pastors to go out – and here I would like to quote from his homily to priests on Holy Thursday: “May (Jesus) renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those ‘outskirts’ where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joel Camaya.