By Francis Ngwa Niba in Vatican City, Rome Italy.
My friend George likes putting a positive spin on everything. “Francis”, he said soon after the official name of the new pope became known, “ he has chosen your name”. I was at first shocked and then asked “what do you mean?”. George also likes being melodramatic. He pauses slightly then says, “the pope is known as Francis, just like you”, “Papa Francesco”, that is Italian for Father Francis. See what I mean when I say George likes putting a spin on everything?
I was with George in a small drinking corner near Vatican city doing what is now a national past time in my country-drinking, when news first filtered in that 1.2 Billion Roman Catholic faithfuls around the globe finally had a new leader after the last one absconded. Then Omer, my very demanding Station manager of Radio Hot Cocoa in Bamenda (where the hell did they get a name like that?) a small town in North Western Cameroon and for whom I agreed to cover the elections rang me so we do a quick interview. Then communications difficulties. I might do the interview sometime today.
The elections of the new pope came faster than anyone envisaged, less than forty eight hours after the door to the conclave was locked and the 115 Cardinals technically ” imprisoned” until they elected a new pope. That is why I was caught off guard, bottle in hand! This surprisingly quick elections to fill the vacant papal position happened because Pope Emeritus Benedict changed the rules to make it a less complicated, drawn out process. They might be dressed in red and look “Godly” in their official robes but these 115 secretive electors are still basically human beings who will bicker, change their minds, even if the position they are trying to fill is that of the personal representative of St Peter on earth. In the past, it used to take weeks and sometimes months, to vote a new pope but from yesterdays’ quick vote. It is now mathematically possible to get a new pope after one round of voting. That can only be good news for a church struggling to adapt to new technology, fighting off sex abuse charges of some of its priests and bishops and involved in numerous financial improprities.
The more than 6000 catholic faithfuls and tourists that were either present at St Peter’s Square or rushed there to witness the occasion live were not thinking about these weaknesses of the church when they shouted like one man “papa francesco”, viva papa francesco”. When I Iooked at some of their faces yesterday night, I saw people who still either believed or desperately wanted to be getting a positive message from the church. The church still played a pivotal role in their lives, they believed in the rituals involved in choosing the pope and followed the process closely. There were whooping sounds of joy when the first signals that the church had a new pope gushed out of the Sistene chapel Chimny-white smoke.
New Pope faces the world
Church officials are now adept at raising expectations of the faithful after the elections of a new pope. It took more than an hour from the time the white smoke gushed out of the chimney to when the new pope was officially presented to the world on the balcony of St Peter’s Square. The delay we learn is time enough for the new pope to measure one of the three different papal robes sewned shortly before the elections to fit a small, medium or large cardinal.
The new pope also has to search for a name and to prepare to face the world as pope for the very first time. Time enough for the cardinas to also hold a thanks giving service after their elections. During these waiting time, thousands of people filed into the vatican where entry was highly restricted. I had to trick my way into St Peter’s Square. Please dont ask me to tell you how I did that!
The new pope also fits the billing and though dissapointed he was not African, the fact that he is Argentinian from an impoverished background ( the first Pope from South America) was a sign of the seismic changes that are now taking place in the church around the world. Dozens of Argentinian flags mysteriously emerged and were being waved around St Peter’s Square. The football playing nation now has another good reason to raise it’s flag.
Then the new pope arrived at the famous red coloured balcony to thunderous applause. Now completely garbed in the white flowing ropes of the Pope, he humbly accepted his new role. I don’t know what others think but these former cardinals who become popes mysteriously assume an aura of spirituality and invincibity when they are voted. I am sure the white flowing robes and small white cap they wear has something to do with that mysterious transformation.
For some strange reason, there either isn’t a single English speaking radio station in Rome or if there is one, I haven’t listened to it. Only Radio Vatican was running live commentaries of the elections and mostly in French. I must have stumbled on the french version of the station because I understand it broadcast in other languages including English and of course, italian. I therefore struggled to follow what the pope was saying live but did catch some of his phrases like when he mentioned he will like to work with other religious leaders to maintain peace and harmony around the world.
Africa losses, church wins
I just could not see Ghanian cardinal Peter Turkson after the elections of the new pope which is not uncommon since only a few leutenants of the new pope appear with him on the balkony of the Vatican. Except something very dramatic happens like the death of Pope John Paul 1 33 days after he was elected in 1978, there just is no way Cardinal Turkson’s name will even be mentioned again as a favourite or probably pope. The “fight” to get an African pope from the continent where Catholicism is growing fastest might now have been put back by a generation. At the “youthful” age of 76, Pope Francesco might be around for at least the next twenty years. Cardinal Turkson will be over 80 and disqualified even from voting the next time there is an elections for a new pope. The handful of Africans, mostly from Congo that I spoke to after the new pope was elected, felt let down but now fully support their new spiritual leader.
My namesake, papa Francesco begins his first full day as ruler of 1.2 billion people today. I deserve a hot drink for that dont I? I am pope! Indulge me!