There were more than 6,000 accredited journalists in Rome to cover the conclave that led to the election of Pope Francis on March 13. All of the rooftops of the buildings surrounding St. Peter's Basilica were rented by the leading international news networks, which jockeyed for the best angles of the Piazza and the loggia of St. Peter's to cover the emergence of Pope Francis and his introduction to the globe.
|Crowd seen in St. Peter's Square after white|
smoke rose from chimney above Sistine Chapel
indicating new pope elected.
This has happened before, of course. In 1799, Pope Pius VI had died a prisoner of the French, and the cardinals could not gather in Rome because it was occupied by French forces. They met in the one place where they might be safe, in a Benedictine monastery on a little island just off Venice. They elected Pope Pius VII, but many assumed across Europe that the papacy could not long survive the tides of what was then modernity.
Do popes matter?
The late English writer Peter Hebblethwaite once asked, "Do the popes matter?" They clearly do. And to more than 1.3 billion Catholics who will call him the Vicar of Christ.
As the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis oversees the world's largest charitable effort, feeding millions, caring for the homeless and forgotten and providing medical care for literally hundreds of millions. Despite the recent travails of the Church, the pope is still viewed almost universally as a moral guide and voice for peace, justice and human dignity at a time when the planet confronts thundering drumbeats of war and new crises caused by transnational capitalism, fast-moving globalization and profound ethical questions raised by advances in science and medicine.
His writing and homilies will provoke study and also criticism – witness Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical that called for oversight over global finance – but they will be read. And this pontiff dedicated to Christlike humility and service will take his presence and his teachings to the corners of the globe. He will have a voice in the great debates of our time, and even those who disagree with him will nevertheless be unable to dismiss him.
The popes still matter. Anyone who doubts that needed only to look at the rooftops of Rome.
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.