The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, breaks ground in geography, background, and name.
Though the choice led to the refrain "who" from many, according to John Allen, the highly respected Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, evidence suggests that Bergoglio was the runner-up in 2005 when a conclave chose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to replace the late Pope John Paul II.
Francis I is the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere -- indeed the first non-European pope in many centuries. A frequent criticism of now-emeritus pope Benedict XVI was that he was overly concerned with the decline of the faith in Europe to the neglect of other areas of the Catholic world. More than two thirds of Catholics live in the developing world.
Still, Francis I has European roots, as his father was an immigrant from Italy to Buenos Aires, where Bergoglio was born in 1936.
In background, he is the first pope to belong to the Society of Jesus -- i.e. the Jesuits -- the church's largest religious order, founded by Ignatius Loyola and his companions in the early 16th century. Jesuits are seen as cosmopolitan intellectuals and educators and generally don't accept church offices such as bishop or cardinal, though there have been exceptions over the centuries.
In picking the name Francis, another novelty, Bergoglio may be signaling any number of things. It is most likely a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century lover of the poor and nature, who almost single-handedly reformed the Catholic Church.
Bergoglio is reported to be personally modest and austere in his personal habits -- he is not one to ride around in limousines or live in a flashy residence. Allen notes that "Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor."
"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."
Such concern for economic justice was true of both his papal predecessors, much to the occasional consternation of politically conservative American Catholics. However, Francis I also is in line with his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on sexual matters, such as contraception and gay marriage. According to Allen, in 2010 Bergoglio asserted that gay adoption is "a form of discrimination against children." Yet Allen also reports that Bergoglio has shown compassion for the victims of AIDS; in 2001, visiting a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients.
Even if one accepts that the Holy Spirit worked through the cardinals at the conclave to choose the new pope, the Catholic Church also teaches that grace builds upon nature, and the cardinals who just elected a new pope were themselves all appointed over the last 35 years by two conservative popes. So that a group of largely conservative men elected another conservative man is not a surprise -- the opposite would have been a surprise.
They also did not elect a particularly young man; at 76, Francis I is only two years younger than Benedict XVI was when elected in 2005.
Still, tidbits of the new pope's biography are encouraging. For instance, he doesn't want the church to become "self-referential" -- that is, closed in on itself; he has a keen pastoral sense; he's a man of deep prayer; and he showed great interfaith and humanistic concern after a 1994 terrorist bombing of Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires.
So Catholics -- and the many others who seem to become fascinated with the process every time a new one is chosen -- have a new pope. Congratulations are in order, and now the intense watching and listening begins to detect where matters of style and substance will change and where they will remain the same.
~ Mark E. Rondeau