This piece initially ran in March 2013.
Outdoor papal Masses are always a strange combination of stargazing and solemnity, and, at least in that regard, Francis’s inaugural was no different. I inhaled secondhand smoke while watching a habited nun kneel on cobblestones for the consecration. And nearly tripped over a family having a picnic on my way to receive Communion.
But the surprising, even unfamiliar character of Francis’s inaugural Mass was evident from the start. As he zigzagged through the piazza in the open-air popemobile, he made eye contact with people in the crowd, had brief conversations with some, gave a thumbs-up to others, stopped to bless a disabled man, and instructed his security to allow a child to be passed over the fence for a hug. Nearby photographers nearly passed out—and one father tried to persuade his young son to make a run for the popemobile; the boy wasn’t going for it. But everyone else was.
Crowds rushed the barricades, waving smartphones and tablets, scrambling for a picture of the new pontiff. (They wouldn’t be able to upload anything for hours—Rome’s already weak cellular network had been overwhelmed by the masses.) Nervous security agents shouted down those who tried to climb over. Swiss Guards stood by, looking fabulous.
Many Catholics on the piazza had never seen a pope like this. Young people were everywhere, and from everywhere. Argentina (naturally), France, Spain, Brazil, the United States, the UK, Africa, Asia. Even though a national holiday had been declared in Italy, there weren’t nearly as many Italians in attendance as there had been the night Francis was elected. Maybe they were poped out. Or dissuaded by news reports that a million people were going to show up for Mass (where they would fit was not explained—the piazza holds about two hundred thousand). Still, the Italians were there in spirit, as people from all countries had adopted their chant: “Viva il papa! Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co!”
While few of the young people I encountered had deep knowledge of the new pope—“He’s a Jesuit?”—they had read his early signals loud and clear: humility, mercy, attention to the Spirit. “That he would come out on the balcony of St. Peter’s and ask us to pray for him before he prayed for us,” a college-aged American woman said, echoing the remarks of almost everyone I spoke with. “I couldn’t believe it. He bowed—to us.” And another: “He lived with the poor. He’s a man of the people.”
Some had simply come for the spectacle: “I’m not Catholic, but I wanted to see what this was all about,” one twenty-something Londoner told me. “I won’t stay too long.” Others weren’t terribly taken with the pandemonium: “I don’t know if I got a lot out of it,” an American student confessed. “My grandmother would have.”
Nearly all the younger Catholics I talked with brought up four issues without prompting: homosexuality, the sexual-abuse scandal, tolerance, and women. “The church should be more accepting,” a teenager told me. Of what? “Gay marriage.” A secondary-school teacher said that “the biggest challenge Francis faces is making the church safe for children.” A college student raised in the Philippines recalled dinners her parents would host featuring members of several religious traditions. “There were no arguments. People got along. We need more of that.” The church “keeps women down,” a high-schooler flatly declared. “Yeah, I want the next pope to be a woman,” her friend joked—before expressing her sincere desire for the pope to “bring back Latin.”
None showed resentment for the ways in which the church fell short of their hopes. Indeed, the question of whether Francis would actually change the church to suit their wishes seemed not to occur to them. They were caught up in the moment, witnessing history, surprised by this soft-spoken man who had just told the world that he wanted his papacy to be one of service.
And the kids weren’t the only ones who were impressed. A late-middle-aged woman waxed ecstatic about Pope Francis. A lapsed Catholic, she wondered whether he might bring her back to the church. “The Holy Spirit has come,” she laughed, looking up at the first blue sky after days of rain. “And so has spring.”