First Latin American pope changes history

Pope Francis I has already made history — and that’s saying a lot about the most historic institution in the world.

Considering the challenges he faces, however, that may be the easy part for the new pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The choice of  the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, means that the Roman Catholic Church has its first pope from Latin America — the first non- European.

He also is the first Jesuit elevated to the papacy.

In a recent editorial, we wrote about our hopes the Roman Catholic Church would choose a great communicator who was also a skilled manager as the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. While that editorial provoked criticism from readers who wondered, with justification, how a community newspaper would dare weigh in on an institution that has prevailed for 2,000 years, the next pope immediately becomes a hugely influential leader around the world — and even in the secular city of the Holy Cross, Santa Cruz, founded as a Catholic mission.

For the Americas, it’s hard to overstate how Francis changes history — 39 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America; half in the Americas with 77 percent of Argentinians Catholic. Of the United States’ 50 million Hispanics, about 70 percent are Catholic.

While for many outside the Vatican the choice was something of  a surprise, the cardinals who voted for the 76-year-old Spanish-speaking Cardinal Bergoglio did not exactly take a leap of faith, since he was the runner-up eight years ago when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen. Francis  also has another tie to Rome — he is the child of Italian immigrants from a nation with a large Italian population. Benedict, 85, stepped down last month, citing the infirmities of age and Francis  is just a year younger than his predecessor at the time he was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II, which might indicate that another “caretaker pope” has been selected.

But the 266th pope is hardly a copy of Benedict, an intellectual who reportedly had little taste for management, and had to work hard at showing a common touch.

As Cardinal Bergoglio, he was outspoken against the recent liberalization of Argentinian laws on abortion, stating “abortion is never a solution.” He opposed the legalization of gay marriage in his country. He is considered a disciple of John Paul II — which indicates Francis I, a former leader of the Society of Jesus,  is more conservative than many of his Jesuit brethren, especially in Latin America, where the movement was key in the liberation theology that often blended social justice and even Marxist principles in an effort to raise the poor from degrading circumstances. Jesuits also are known for the their dedication to scholarship and for founding Catholic universities in the U.S.

His choice of the name “Francis” would seem to reflect a genuine care for the poor — which would make the new pope a figure of hope and inspiration in the slums and shantytowns that sprawl across Latin America. By taking on the name of St. Francis of Assisi, Francis I also demonstrated his identification with the revered saint’s credo of poverty, humility and simplicity. His personal style lies outside the Vatican’s pomp and splendor — he was  living in a small apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals  and regularly visited the slums that surround Buenos Aires.

He also is well acquainted with the Roman Curia — which runs the Vatican’s day to day affairs — and the dysfunction and scandals that have brought cries for reform — just as the new Bishop of Rome will need to bring a full accountability and transparency to the sexual abuse scandals that have so besmirched the image of his church.

He began his papacy with prayer — and with the prayers of Catholics around the world who want reform, evangelization and humility from the spiritual heir to St. Peter.

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