The election of a new pope holds renewed promise of the fulfillment of hopes, dreams and yearnings, as well as the possibility of a return to revered values and principles.
For two days, thousands of eyes in St Peter’s Square (and many millions more across the globe watching on TV) were fixed on a small pipe atop the Sistine Chapel. And when white billowy puffs emerged from the smokestack on March 13, the anxious crowd below erupted in cheers. Not too long afterward, the Dean of the College of Cardinals came to the edge of a balcony and delivered his news of “great joy” to the masses gathered below. “Habemus Papam,” he proclaimed, and then made it known that the cardinal-bishop from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had been named the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church and had taken the name of Francis. Thus were capped several days of ceremonial rituals, secret meetings and deliberations, and age-old traditions and practices. All this preceding a formal installation ceremony in a grand basilica. The papal conclave and the election of a new leader for the world’s one billion plus Catholics was indeed full of pomp and circumstance.
Many have heard the phrase, but perhaps not so many understand the origins and meaning of the terms pomp and circumstance. From the Latin pompa, meaning ‘procession,’ the word pomp describes the ceremonial procession that often accompanies important events, especially important achievements. The word pompous comes from the same root, and originally was used to describe any type of event and behaviors associated with ceremonial happenings, but gradually developed a negative connotation. We began to associate the term with ostentatious displays or arrogance. Understanding how the word circumstance fits in is a little harder. But once again, when you understand the Latin root, circumstare (literally standing and looking around), it becomes clearer that the circumstance involved in pomp refers to the role the crowd plays (not only in its mere presence, but also in its awe and often its jubilation) in making the event one to remember. The phrase pomp and circumstance became more widely used after it was famously included in Shakespeare’s Othello and subsequently applied to the title of a military march composed by Edward Elgar. Elgar’s tune has been heard at many high school and college graduations and other ceremonial events over the years, and there’s little doubt these events are full of pomp and circumstance.
Just understanding the origins of pomp and circumstance doesn’t fully explain why ceremonial rites, processions, and celebratory events hold so much meaning for us. To understand that, we have to look deeper into the symbolic value our most enduring traditions hold. The word tradition (again from Latin) means a ‘handing over’ of things revered from generation to generation. And perhaps there is nothing more revered than the handing over of the reins of leadership of our most important institutions. That’s really what all the fuss was about in St Peter’s Square. Pomp and circumstance, to be sure, but strictly related to how important it is to all the faithful to believe that there’s a good and noble shepherd now guiding the flock. As a symbol, perhaps there is none greater than the pope, save the church itself.
Whenever events with great symbolism and meaning attached to them occur, we humans tend to project our deepest yearnings, fears, hopes, dreams, etc. upon them. Only time will tell how many of our projections will ultimately mirror reality. But for now, there is great anticipation. The election of Pope Francis I carries with it many firsts. He is the first non-European to hold the office since the eighth century, as well as the first pope from the Americas. He is also the first Jesuit pope in history. Perhaps most significantly, he is the first pope to take the name Francis, honoring the saint best known for his self-imposed poverty and loving kindness. And as bishop, Francis I developed a reputation that is most unusual in the modern age for humility and simplicity in lifestyle. He is known for cooking his own meals, living in spartan quarters among his people instead of an episcopal mansion, working tirelessly on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, and for riding the bus to work so that he had a daily opportunity for dialogue with the people he sought to mentor. And if this straight-talking, down-to-earth man successfully manages to purge the church bureaucracy of cronyism and corruption, it will indeed be a first, and a most welcome one at that.
We can all pray that Pope Francis will be true not only to his namesake, but also that namesake’s divine charge to re-build the church in a manner in which love and goodwill again reign supreme. While many already admire him for some of his personal attributes, others contend he is no saint because of his stand on various social issues. It will take a lot of loving guidance on his part to help unite a deeply divided world. But if he succeeds in that task to any reasonable degree, it would certainly be cause for an even greater celebration than the one we have witnessed over the past few days. It will be a celebration not full of pomp and circumstance, but rather quiet and deeply abiding joy — a celebration in the hearts of those who yearn to see their church return to its roots and renew itself in its most treasured principles.
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