On March 13, 2013, I sat in my office and watched my screen as a new pope — a man whom I had never seen before that moment — walked out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. I had never heard of him. I did not even know his name. Like most Catholics, I had approached the papal conclave with a sense of hopeful anticipation. But the feeling that came over me when I saw the man the cardinals had elected was shockingly forceful. It was a feeling of icy cold dread. As I looked at him, standing there, staring out at the crowd, I heard seven words distinctly in my mind, unbidden: “This man is no friend of Tradition.”
There was something in his face. In the way he stared down at the gathered crowd. There was something…wrong about his eyes. What I saw — what I thought I saw — was something other, looking out through that unreadable mask. Something triumphant, haughty, contemptuous, leering out at long last from atop the pinnacle of a long and hard-fought battle. It was incredibly strange.
When I look back at the photo of that moment, I can see that there was no discernible expression on his face. What I saw was, I think, not so much something physical but more of a spiritual insight. It struck me, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, as a preternatural experience. I was so unnerved, I had to fight down a wave of nausea.
I alluded to these things months later, when I first began, after trying very hard to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, to write about why his papacy was already full of warning signs. I was derided by some at the time, as though this were just some fantasy I had conjured up (for what reason I would do such a thing, I couldn’t hope to explain.) But I have since heard from countless others who had the same, bizarre, unexpected initial reaction. From that first moment, even though I tried hard to shove impressions aside and let reason prevail, I knew, as did so many other Catholics in what I have come to think of as a signal grace. A warning from God: this would be a papacy of terrible consequence.