My predominant memory from a year ago this week was the rain. There was a ceaseless downpour everywhere in Rome. I was among the influx of media there to cover the coming election of a new pope.
During that Lenten season, no one predicted what was to come -- a Rolling Stone cover story on the first pope from the Americas being the least among the surprises to come. And yet in the uncertainty of that time -- the unprecedented abdication of Pope Benedict XVI had shaken the faithful -- there was a confidence and hope.
Pope Francis recently pointed to people who know how to suffer with smiles on their faces, who keep "the joy of faith" prominent even as they face trials and illness. They are people who, he said, "carry the Church forward with their everyday sanctity," becoming true beacons.
There was something about the joy everyone seemed to have in the rain as they awaited the verdict of the papal conclave that spoke to a participation in something more powerful than any ordinary election.
Writing about this time in the Church in an e-book, "Praying in Rome," New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan observed that the big question for a Christian is: "Am I going to be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit? Am I going to be able to detect the Spirit's guidance?"
This guidance and willingness to detect it seem more necessary than ever before. As fundamental building blocks of a healthy society crumble -- the family, marriage and religious liberty all come to mind -- what we need is a renewed focus on stewardship and integrity, and a respite from the distractions of polarized politics and cultural battlegrounds.
There's something about Pope Francis that has captured the aspirations of the world. He's a humble servant who points us to the compelling, joyful alternative that is the Gospels and their way of self-sacrifice, love and charity.
The pope has referred to the Church as a field hospital. We go to the doctor for checkups, for advice, for medicine. And so it is here. "Come to the Church, all who are weary," is again and again the pope's message. There will love and mercy be found. Never tire of asking for God's forgiveness. There is such grace-filled liberation in this!
As Pope Francis put it in his homily on holy patience: "Every time we go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we sing a hymn to God's patience. The Lord carries us on his shoulders, with great patience."
What a great relief, if you believe this. His is a challenge that requires a decision of daily, albeit imperfect, surrender, while also offering great joy and relief.
A week ago I drove through Boys Town, Neb., home of the eponymous non-profit organization devoted to helping at-risk families. A prominently displayed statue in town bears the famous Boy's Town motto: "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." This got me thinking: Can we lighten the load for someone? Can we show them they're not alone, that they are loved? This is where Pope Francis starts us. He shows us how light can break through the clouds of the painful dramas of life and hope becomes palpable. For anyone feeling drenched -- overwhelmed, cold or weak -- there's transformational warmth waiting beyond this open door. In the last year, more people have seen that the door is open for them.
Perhaps that's all you really need to know about Pope Francis: He's inviting us to live a life such as his, devoted to helping and shepherding others, giving the world the peace and merciful love it so sorely needs. It's a light that illuminates everything.