Mar 23, 2013

habemus papum franciscum

I sometimes wonder what will be written in history books about the times we are living in. There are sure to be news stories that we may consider large and looming today, but 100 years in the future would be insignificant. I feel like we can look to the past to see what will be relevant tomorrow. For example, when I open up history books, I tend to see much mentioned about war. War has always shaped societies and it will continue to do so, even if the definitions of what is considered warfare change and expand.

I also see the creation, development and spread of culture; specifically, the many religious and spiritual influences now present in the world. For example, I highly doubt, with all personal feelings aside, that Jesus Christ will ever become less of an influence in cultures around the world. There seems to be an even greater awareness of the impact of religion in historical events past and present today, than there has ever been.

The reason I bring up the topics of relevant news and the influence of religion is because of a recent event that will certainly be relevant 100 years from now and also have far-reaching societal influences in our day and age. I am talking about the election of His Holiness Pope Francis.

The Catholic Church has not only been a major participant in the shaping of the Christian world, but has also played a role in the evolution of societies the world over. It would be impossible to summarize the effects of its influence here in this column. A simple Wikipedia search can get you started on delving into nigh on two millennia worth of Catholic history.

The word Catholic itself is derived from the Greek word Katholikos, which can be literally translated to mean "universal." This fact should also point to the far-reaching effects the church has had on the world throughout the centuries. The pope is the person with the most visibility and influence over the church. Thus, whenever a new pope is selected to succeed a past pope, it is an event with global ramifications. That could not have been truer last Wednesday when millions, and probably even billions, of people of all different backgrounds watched Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio be presented as the new pontiff, Pope Francis.

What led to this event was actually an historic event in and of itself. Normally, a new pope is selected after the previous dies. However, on Feb. 11, the pope at that time, Pope Benedict XVI, announced his resigning of the office of pope, which hadn't happened since 1415. In a series of events followed closely by the media, the now Emeritus Pope Benedict ceremonially abdicated on Feb. 28.

Following protocol, the college of Catholic Cardinals assembled in Rome for a meeting called the Conclave. This meeting is held in the Sistine Chapel and closed off to all but the Cardinals, who select the new pope from among one of their own. Much of the excitement during a Conclave surrounds the smoke color that is released through a previously constructed chimney. This smoke is produced when the ballots cast by the Cardinals are burned after each round of voting. Since it requires a two-thirds majority to become pope, many rounds of voting can pass with no decision. If no pope is chosen, a chemical is mixed with the burning ballots, which turns the smoke black. If a pope is chosen, only the ballots are burned, which produces a white smoke. Shortly after the white smoke appears, the new pope is introduced to the world.

For those of you who followed the process, I'm sure you felt the media had redundant and often overly exhaustive reporting on it. Speculation was rampant. In the end, none of it mattered.

The spectacle in Vatican City was such because of its deep historic roots, tradition-laden procedures and the clear effects the results would have on not just Catholics, but on the world. It was hard not to get caught up in the mysteriousness of the Conclave, the suspense after each round of smoke and the relief of finally knowing who the new pope was. I am sure there were many non-Catholics who were intrigued by the goings-on as much as Catholics were. I know, because I was one of them.

I think this showed yet again, how people in the world recognize the interconnectedness and influence of other cultures in their own lives. The key is having that lead to greater understanding and peace in the world, so the history books are less filled with notes about war and more filled with events that have promoted social unity.

This post was originally published as a column for the Bluff Country Newspaper Group in the Mar. 18 issue of the Bluff Country Reader.

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