White SmokeMarch 15, 2013
Although not a Catholic, I found myself once again drawn to the mystery and excitement of a papal election. On both Tuesday and Wednesday I put in the corner of my computer screen the live video feed of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. On Tuesday as the first round of black smoke (not surprisingly) filled the air, I was pleased with how much more obvious it was than eight years ago when every round - black and white - all seemed to be about the same shade of gray. Then on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed as the clearly white smoke puffing from the chimney, dramatically signaling that the election of a new pope - while also increasing the drama as we must wait an hour to learn the new pope's identity. There is something fascinating about the ritual of this election process (and I almost feel like we need to start running the chimney at the White House the same way on election night!). In an age of nearly instant and constant electronic communication, the Cardinals shut themselves off from the outside world. The Vatican even installed electronic jamming technology to prevent communication from going in or out of the Sistine Chapel, including to prevent the Cardinals from live-tweeting the vote. I watched on Tuesdays as the Cardinals slowly made their way from Mass to the Sistine Chapel, chanting and praying. Then the doors were shut and the only communication to come was the one-way smoke. Perhaps it is a dated practice, but it seems to be an interesting metaphor. As we grapple with discerning the will of God, perhaps words fail us. Perhaps the best we can do is send and try to decipher smoke signals. Yet, there is something holy in that communication (even when, like eight years ago, it is ambiguously gray). Adding to the drama on Wednesday was the presence of a white seagull who kept returning to hang out at the chimney as people from around the world watched in anticipation of the next round of smoke. Before the white smoke emerged, a writer for the Catholic magazine Commonweal noted on the publication's blog that the bird could be a Roman omen that an unexpected person was being selected as pope. A few commentators criticized the writer for reading too much into the bird's presence, but then the news came that the Cardinals had elected an new pope unexpectedly early - and he turned out to be an unexpected choice. Was the bird an omen, a sign? Or just a coincidence? It does not really matter because either way the bird serves as an interesting metaphor for faith. Is it real, a sign, or just coincidence? We cannot know for sure, so we must have faith. We must watch for the smokey signals as ones who see through a glass darkly.
Once the new pope emerged, he came with a new name. It is an interesting tradition that echoes the importance of names in the Bible. Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, and Saul became Paul. New names to represent their new calling. Francis (he will not be known as Francis I until after he is dead) is a fascinating name choice. This pope is shaking things up by picking a new papal name, and he is picking one that brings to mind the great saint Francis of Assisi, known for his simple living, love of creation, and interfaith relations. What powerful messages that Pope Francis may be sending with his symbolic start. Surely the part about simple living already fits. While the last pope wore red Prada shoes, this one comes with simpler tastes. For years he has ridden public transportation, cooked his own meals, and lived in a simple apartment rather than the traditional archbishop's palace. What a powerful symbol his way of life could be for Christians around the world! How we live says a lot, kind of like the smoke signals from the Sistine Chapel's chimney.