Smoke Signals

The election of the new pope has been big news this week – a reminder that although we’re always being told that established religion is ‘irrelevant’ in today’s culture it still has a greater hold than many would give it credit for. Who will the new pope be? Where will he come from – will he be European, African or Latin American, black or white? What will his theology be like? Will he be a politician, a theologian, an activist, a reflective or an evangelist (not that these are necessarily mutually exclusive terms)? What papal name will he adopt once elected and what will that tell us about him? How long will the decision making take?

I remember being a child during this process in the 70s I guess. It must have been quite prominent news at the time as I can quite clearly remember the anticipation surrounding the smoke coming from the chimney which declared whether or not a decision had been made. Would it be black smoke, indicating that they hadn’t reached a decision yet, or white to show that the vote had been successful? I can vividly recall seeing the footage of white smoke swirling over the Vatican roofs.

Of course, the sense of mystery and drama around this secretive vote is probably as much if not more the cause of the interest than any religious fascination, and like a Dan Brown novel, when conspiracy theories and organized religion come together, you’re on to a winning combination.

Now, I’m no expert in Catholic affairs, and do not know anything beyond what has been heard in the news about the new Bishop of Rome. I think that his choice of name, Pope Francis after Francis of Assisi and his apparent emphasis on humility, are promising signs. As a prominent public figure, putting others first and showing practical concern as well as theological wisdom, will keep him in good standing and are Christ-like qualities which should be encouraged.

The whole process reminds me of another mysterious election. The Bible tells us that God has elected or chosen to call a people to him; to be his people, his family. He has adopted us as his children. Why has he done this? It can’t be for our excellence or qualifications; history has demonstrated our failings time after time! It can only be out of love, the desire to live in relationship with others. Of course, there was no smoke to demonstrate this election; instead his Son was lifted high to declare his love of humanity. But like with the new pope, there remains a question. What kind of people will we prove to be?

Church Newsletter Article, 17.03.13

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