Opinion

The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

byDwight G. Duncan
3/22/2013

Habemus Papam! Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires) was elected on March 13, the second day of the conclave, achieving the necessary 2/3 vote (77 out of a possible 115) on the last ballot of the day. There are a lot of firsts here: he is the first pope called Francis, the first from the Americas, and the only Jesuit to be elected pope thus far.

In choosing the name Francis, of course, he was summoning up the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the poverello founder of the Franciscans, the charismatic and humble friar who was never ordained a priest. As Pope Francis told journalists on Saturday, March 16, "For me, [St. Francis] is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man ... How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!"

In various ways, Pope Francis has been practicing what he preaches. After his election, he preferred to ride back to the cardinals' residence in the minibus with the cardinals, rather than take the papal limousine. He asked the bishops of Argentina to spare the expense of coming to his inaugural Mass on the Feast of St. Joseph and give it to the poor, something he also suggested to his sister in Argentina, who won't attend for that reason.

There's an interesting side-story here, which I read in the Italian newspaper La Stampa. When he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001, Cardinal Bergoglio balked at paying the $6000 euros for his cardinal's outfit. So he simply purchased the necessary red cloth, and his sister sewed his cardinal's robes herself! She also said she had talked to him before the conclave, and he had told her he had gotten a cheap round-trip flight to Rome, and that he planned to be back in Buenos Aires by last weekend, "pope or no pope," because he was needed there (and presumably he wouldn't be able to change his ticket without paying again). God had other plans, it seems.

Similarly, the morning after his election, he went to the shrine of St. Mary Major to pray before the image of our Lady Salus Populi Romani, the protector of the Roman people. He went in an ordinary Vatican Volkswagen, rather than in the pope-mobile, and without a motorcade. On the way back, he stopped at the priests residence he had been staying at to pay his bill, and to personally fetch his suitcase. These small details illustrate a man who is simple, humble and frugal, like St. Francis. Not a person to insist on clerical privilege.

One of the other things he told the journalists, echoing a favorite theme of Pope Benedict's, is that Christ is the one who's important: "Christ remains the center, not the Successor of Peter: Christ, Christ is the center. Christ is the fundamental point of reference, the heart of the Church. Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist."

It has been reported, in seemingly reliable accounts, that at the last conclave in 2005, Pope Francis was the runner-up to Pope Benedict XVI. Before the final vote then, he made an appeal to cardinals over lunch not to vote for him, but instead vote for Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then elected. Yet another manifestation of his humility.

Almost a hundred years ago, in the conclave to elect a successor to St. Pius X, his secretary of state, Cardinal Merry del Val, concerned that an ecclesiastical rival, the cardinal archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo della Chiesa, would be elected pope, asked for a recount. The recount confirmed the election of Cardinal della Chiesa, who took the name Pope Benedict XV. When, as is the custom, the cardinals came up to individually pledge their obedience to the new pope, Benedict XV told Cardinal del Val, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." (Psalm 118:22). Without missing a beat, the cardinal replied quoting the next verse from the psalm, "By the Lord has this been done; it is marvelous in our eyes." (Psalm 118:23).

Obviously, the biblical reference applies first and foremost to Christ, as the rejected stone whose redemptive suffering and death we commemorate during Holy Week. Pope Francis would doubtless agree. But, since the pope, Peter with his successors, is the rock on which Christ built his Church, it also applies to him. Having been passed over in 2005, "the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is marvelous in our eyes."

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.