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The Surprise of Francis

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Anyone who tells you they aren’t surprised is lying.”

That is what then Congressman Chris Cox told me on the KCET television set on election night 1994 when the GOP, led by Newt Gingrich, seized the House majority.

That was very early in my broadcast career, but in the 20 years since I don’t think I have seen so many people as surprised as by Wednesday’s announcement of the election of Pope Francis.

The election of Pope Francis will be discussed for, well, decades and even centuries.

I was able to talk on air with four individuals within two hours of "Habemus Papam" being pronounced:

Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., former head of Gonzaga University and president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith --the transcript is here;

Father C. John McCloskey, a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute --the transcript is here;

Rocco Palmo, a Catholic layman, journalist and prolific blogger at Whispers in the Loggia --the transcript is here; and

Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary --the transcript is here.

In each case the surprise that these very serious men felt comes through, and the honest commentators and journalists will own their shock.

As the world’s media scrambled to put together a profile of the new pope, only two “mini-profiles” were quickly available.

John L. Allen of the National Catholic Reporter had filed one on March 3rd, an obligatory nod towards the man who had allegedly received 40 votes in the last conclave.

And Jose Maria Poirier had written a profile on March 13, 2005 for the United Kingdom’s Catholic Herald which layaround for eight years waiting to be read by hundreds of thousands.

Much, much more will be written in the days, weeks and months ahead about this most unusual election and very unusual pope. (The best commentary will be found at

What to believe? Philadelphia’s esteemed Archbishop Charles Chaput put out a statement that reassured many Catholics:

I first met our new Holy Father at Rome's 1997 Synod for America, and still have a gift from him, a portrait of Mary, the mother of Jesus, on my desk.

Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio, is a man from the new heartland of the global Church; a priest of extraordinary intellectual and cultural strengths; a man deeply engaged in the issues of contemporary life and able to speak to the modern heart; open to the new realities the Church faces; and rooted in a deep love of Jesus Christ. He is a wonderful choice; a pastor God sends not just to the Church but to every person of good will who honestly yearns for justice, peace and human dignity in our time. May God grant him courage and joy, and sustain him with his divine presence.

And may Catholics in Philadelphia and around the world lift him up with our prayers.

Now a few days will pass of prayer and ceremony, then the cardinals will return to their homes to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, and the 3,000 or so members of the Vatican Curia will return to their desks to await instructions.

The imminent Catholic American intellectual George Weigel told me on Tuesday that what the Roman Catholic Church really needed was a “100 days” papacy, a massive and sudden changing of the guard in Rome and in key ministries across the globe.

For those disappointed at the age of the new pope, consider Weigel’s call, and the undeniable fact that if you agree and you are 76, you won’t act at a leisurely pace.

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