Working in the religion news business, I admittedly got caught up in pope-mania over the past 48 hours. I’m not even a Catholic, but the pomp and circumstance captured my attention. And then it got me thinking.
I watched a livestream video of Pope Francis making his first appearance up there on that balcony at the Vatican yesterday, waving to the crowd and looking so uncomfortable. He asked for prayer. Some of the articles I read latched onto that, calling it unusual that the pope—a newly elected pope!—would ask for prayer.
Well, hell! I thought, That’s a pretentious observation. After all, if I had just been elected pope unexpectedly, I’d ask for prayer, too. Because what a tremendous honor it would be! And what a terrifying burden. What an amazing responsibility! What a horrifying gift to be given unexpectedly.
Sometimes I feel that way. I feel like the pope. Even though I am not Catholic. Even though I am not male, which I’ve heard is a deal breaker for the job. I just think I can imagine how the pope must feel sometimes.
I read in an article that, during the papal conclave voting, nothing prevents a cardinal from voting for himself—except the sin of pride. It made me wonder if any cardinal actually does seek the papacy, aspiring to be the mouthpiece for the Lord to the Catholic Church. I assume most cardinals do not.
From what I’ve read, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio did not expect to be pope. He never surfaced as a front runner for the papacy this time around. He’d already had his day as a Vatican front runner when he reportedly finished second in the conclave voting in 2005, and he thought he was going to be too old by the time the next conclave convened.
Now, with a puff of white smoke, he’s Pope Francis. How…unexpected.
You can see what makes it so daunting: Maybe you knew your whole life that you wanted to be a priest. At any rate, you’ve spent your entire life as a priest; it’s the only thing you’ve ever done. Then you show up at the conclave to vote and suddenly there’s white smoke and they’re putting you up on the balcony in that little white hat and you’re the pope.
It changes everything.
So I wonder if popes ever wake up in the Vatican and miss their home country. I wonder if they ever think there was some cosmic error and God got confused, because they didn’t ask to be pope.
I wonder if a pope ever has to rationalize, This is not bad; it’s just not what I thought I’d be doing.
I wonder if he ever thinks, Lord, this is not what I wanted.
I wonder if he ever prays, God, this is not what I expected.
If that’s the case, I think I know how the pope—who remains entirely human, and therefore entitled to human emotions and insecurities—must feel.
Because my life is not what I expected it would be, I think I tend to tell God that it isn’t what I wanted. I’ll say, this isn’t what I asked for. I’ll tell God (and anyone else) that “this” isn’t what I expected, that my life and my “post-college life plan” have diverged radically. I didn’t ask to come to the Midwest, to move away from home, to be on my own like this.
In those moments, God reminds me that I did ask him to use me for his purpose; in order to do that, he had to bring me to a place where I couldn’t take credit for what he’s doing in and through me. I did ask to be rescued; in order to do that, God had to bring me out to a place where I couldn’t save myself.
It’s a lesson in desiring God, to realize that, in fact, this is what I wanted, but it’s not what I thought it would be when I asked for it. Maybe the pope and I have this in common: Maybe we both asked to be used by God, and he said yes.