A year ago yesterday, I was telling people, after 2005, nothing could surprise me.
That should have been true. I will never forget the election of Pope Benedict in 2005. Me and a bunch of others, huddled around a little TV, waiting, waiting, waiting for the reveal.... who would it be????.....
....and then the former Cardinal Ratzinger came out, smiling. And the room went silent. And stayed silent. It was like someone had died.
Yeah. That was a surprise.
And for as poorly as it is currently remembered, Benedict's time as pope had some great surprises, too. He did not turn out to be the attack dog everyone feared. Nor did he continue "the Church is Me" philosophy of his predecessor. Some say Benedict was a shy man; I think he was intent on pulling back from the limelight so that the Church could return to its proper functioning. He and his team made some major faux pas, but even those were at times refreshing. The Pope was just a man, who could screw up just like us.
But regardless, come Benedict's retirement announcement, it didn't matter who they chose, no one could top the surprise of his election.
Lots will be written today about Pope Francis, and how much he has accomplished in just one year. (Can you believe that? It's been only one year! Imagine what he'll do with five!)
I don't want to repeat all that. I will say, his papacy has been an enormous boon to my faith in the Church. And also an enormous challenge. Never have I felt I am falling as short as a priest as I do when I watch him.
And I take that as a good thing. Everyone needs to be pushed.
But rather than say much more that you already know about the man, I want to share a story with you about him that fits the season we're in. It's from the book Untying the Knots, a biography of Pope Francis that I highly recommend by Paul Vallely. In fact it's the title story.
After Jorge Bergoglio finished as provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, it was unclear what to do with him. His term had been extremely divisive for the province. (Vallely does a great job of laying out different ways of understanding that time, whether the problem was Bergoglio's own inflated sense of self and conservatism or the deep societal conflicts that he was trying to navigate.) And frankly, nobody wanted him around.
So he went to Germany to look into getting a PhD in theology -- a pretty crazy notion, given the fact that he had already had so much responsibility and was almost certainly too old to really give himself to that kind of a program.
While he was there, he discovered a painting in a church of Mary untying the knots of sin. It was nothing special, but it captivated him -- so much so, in fact, that when he returned to Argentina, he had the painting reproduced and hung in the cathedral, where it went from a sort of okay painting that no one paid much attention to, to a major object of devotion.
Vallely says that while Bergoglio served as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, he was frequently seen sitting before that picture, seemingly praying that Mary could help untie the knots of his own struggles and failings.
In so many cases, we long for answers or resolution or reconciliation. And they're not forthcoming. We try to push through, to force or fix or analyze. And still, the answers elude us.
They are the knots we try to loosen, but find ourselves unable to undo.
But Bergoglio found hope in another way. Rather than put all the responsibility on ourselves, we can give those knots over to God, or Jesus, or Mary, or whoever. They're big. We're small. Let them work to untie them.
On this first anniversary of his election, I rejoice in a Pope wise enough to see his own neediness and humble enough to share that with the rest of us. A Pope whose first act was to ask the crowd to bless him.
I imagine Mary trying to untie my many, confusing knots, and I am relieved to know someone is going to help me where I can't help myself. Someone is going to help me find my way.
And as I sit before that image, I also take heart in the idea that far away, amidst all the pomp and drama of Rome, a tall, funny Argentinian man is doing the same thing.