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White smoke from the Vatican good news for those of all faiths

The election of a new pope no longer has the impact it once did. Yet last week’s decision by the papal conclave has made even nonreligious cynics take notice.

The process to replace the retiring Pope Benedict XVI seemed to transpire much faster than when previous popes had died in office. When health reasons forced the hand of the outgoing pontiff, it may have been one of the best things to happen to the Catholic Church in years.

Pope Benedict XVI represented the aging church through no fault of his own.

His selection in 2005 was just as carefully considered as all others, but he was an older, frailer man as his tenure came to a close. He was not the charismatic figure that would have added a great deal to his chances of acceptance by a broader group of people.

So enter Pope Francis, a man of many firsts. He is the first pope from the Americas, the first Hispanic pope and the first Jesuit pope. His age (76) may be an issue to some people, but his humility has had an instantaneous effect.

Popes are generally not younger men, but Pope Francis shows an affinity for the poor and underprivileged that transcends time.

It was his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who demonstrated a simpler lifestyle at a time when the church was in crisis. His humanitarian acts and teachings forged a bond between the clergy and those who could benefit the most from it. It was a path as old as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

More fitting are the lines from the Prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is despair, [let me sow] hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”

Everyone walking the planet needs some of these blessings.

From his quickly crafted biography, we learn that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina has endured the type of serious medical issues that make him grateful for each new day.

He comes from a simple family legacy that will serve him well in reaching to people of all faiths or no religious conviction at all.

While I realize not everyone is Catholic or even Christian, this legacy offers a common ground where prejudices are out of place. I was taught that serving others is an obligation of all educated people.

According to the Vatican website, Pope Francis has chosen the motto “Miserando atque eligendo,” meaning lowly but chosen.

“The motto is one the Pope had already chosen as Bishop. It is taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel relating to his vocation: ‘Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an Apostle saying to him, ‘Follow me.’ The homily focuses on divine mercy,” it states.

The name Francis symbolizes “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church,” said CNN Vatican expert John Allen. “The new pope is sending a signal that this will not be business as usual.”

St. Francis said, “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today.”

Whether Pope Francis will be successful at his somewhat radical efforts at simplicity, inclusion and openness remains to be seen. It will be a lengthy process, requiring more than simple gestures such as preferring public transportation to a chauffeur.

Yet the mood it has created in less than a week is encouraging to men and women all over the world. Each of us should treat life with dignity and compassion.

Pope Francis is a common man with an uncommon calling.

Raised a Catholic, I am most fond of a quote attributed to St. Francis that I had never heard before last week’s news: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

He will never admit it, but the new pope is off to a good start. And that’s “the good news” for all of us.
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