Forty-six-to-one. Those were the odds given by a London bookmaker that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Society of Jesus, would be elected pope in March 2013. "Too old," thought many. Imagine the odds that he would one day visit the City of Brotherly Love.
So when Pope Francis confirmed plans to visit Philadelphia, many of us unleashed joyful hallelujahs. It's been 36 years since we've had a papal presence in Pennsylvania - the last time being when Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.
Many wonder what messages Francis will impart to the area's large Catholic community. Will he expound on his oft-praised and sometimes maligned encyclical on climate change? Will he comment on American politics and the Donald Trump phenomenon? And, yes, the big question for a pontiff who knows a good gastronomical delight: Will he go for Pat's or Geno's?
Pope Francis' visit for the World Meeting of Families will include a public Mass for an estimated one million (presumably winners in SEPTA's latest lottery) on the steps of the Art Museum. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput shared a sentiment felt by many when he predicted that Francis' "charisma, presence, and voice will electrify the gathering."
The pope's "voice" is indeed distinctive and compelling. His is an affirming voice of encouragement and Christ-like charity, with a compassionate heart that echoes his papal patron saint (whom we share at Alvernia University), Francis of Assisi. This modern-day Francis has been an inspirational presence for people of all faiths at a time when religion too often is (mis)used to divide, even polarize, rather than unify people of goodwill.
People of all ages and backgrounds yearn to be near Pope Francis, but those of us in leadership positions are especially fascinated by the substance and style of his leadership and want to learn more. Even the media are captivated by him, and rightfully so, for he is a social-media master and a good interview, in addition to being a compelling world figure.
Yes, I admit it. I want right now to be a journalist - on the papal plane, part of the media entourage that gets to know our pope up close and personal, unguarded and unvarnished. If I got within earshot, what would I ask him?
Question 1: Your Holiness, you've painted a poetic image of the church as a "field hospital." Why did you pick an image so vividly different from what most people would have expected?
I imagine our Holy Father might suggest that the church should not sit back and pronounce morality from on high, but must go out to help "heal society's wounds" by engaging directly and honestly with those deserving solace and support. I wonder if he might envision a kind of MASH unit, a place of healing on the front lines, where the need is greatest and those in need are among the most vulnerable - wounded emotionally and spiritually, even if not physically: single mothers; social outcasts; children trapped in poverty; those battling the disease of addiction; those imprisoned, including on death row, especially those unjustly confined; those who feel alienated from the church yet hunger for Christ.
Question 2: Holy Father, your widely quoted question "Who am I to judge?" has stayed with me for quite some time. Can you say more about what you had in mind?
I imagine Pope Francis would look intently at me and perhaps ask, Well, what do you think I meant? He might then remind me of biblical passages where Christ embraces Samaritans, lepers, and public sinners, even as he chastises the Pharisees for preoccupation with "the law" and instead preaches a counterculturally provocative, embracing, and inclusive gospel. I think the pope might say that Catholics, other believers, and even church leaders like him should leave judgment to God.
Finally, with a mischievous smile, I would pose my last query.
Question 3: Pope Francis, what should a kid from the streets of Boston and a president of a Philadelphia-area Catholic university make of your comment that "our leaders should smell like sheep"?
I suspect his answer would reveal his well-known wit and humor and the impact of his Argentinian background. Perhaps he might ask me if I recall the presence of humble shepherds at the nativity or the biblical image of God as the Good Shepherd. He might also note that today's leaders should be "servant-leaders," caring for those around them, not distant imperial figures.
A reporter not long ago asked Francis how he would like to be remembered. He said he hoped people would recall him "as a good guy who tried to do good." I think that even before he has Broad Street under his feet, the odds on this are very favorable.