Pope Francis: First pope of the New World
Pope Francis I
Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis. AFP photo/Filippo Montefortefilippo

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, as successor to Pope Benedict XVI brings to an end the extraordinary events in the life of the modern Church that began Feb. 11 with Pope Benedict’s resignation. The selection of the College of Cardinals was as remarkable and unexpected as the decision by Pope Benedict to step down. 

A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998, the 76-year-old pontiff is the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope and the first successor of Peter from outside of Europe since 731 and the election of Pope Gregory III, a Syrian. 

To understand the election of Pope Francis, it is vital to comprehend the dimensions of global Catholicism. Around 700 million of the world’s Catholics live outside of Europe, and 450 million of them live in Latin America. His election is a stunning development, but it is also recognition of the College of Cardinals that while the Church is truly global, the center of gravity has shifted to the Southern Hemisphere. The Church in Latin America is half a millennium old, and the election of the pope from that continent is a proclamation that it has truly come into its own.

Universal leader

Pope Francis I crowd
Faithful cheer as Pope Francis I appears on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 13. Reuters photo

The pontiff will serve as a bridge among the diverse and growing Catholic communities worldwide that were electrified by the choice of the College. Pope Francis demonstrates powerfully that the Church is, indeed, everywhere and offers a universal message of hope for the poor and the forgotten in a world struggling with the impact of globalization and transnational capitalism. 

It is in Latin America, however, that he will have his most immediate impact. He will be a vital leader in the work to preserve the Catholic culture of Latin America, where there has been a loss of zeal and numbers in the wake of the rise of Pentecostals and evangelicals, materialism, secularism and consumerism. In what was reportedly the only interview he gave to any journalists from the time he was named Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 to his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 2001 — notably it was not to a major newspaper or network but to a parish news bulletin — he was asked to comment on the state of the Church in Argentina. He took exception with the assumption that Argentina was still a majority Catholic country. Why? Because the levels of corruption, the toxic messages in the media and severe social inequalities found in Argentina should not describe a Catholic country.

Two role models

Pope Francis is thus also a herald of the New Evangelization. He has spoken of the need for the New Evangelization and that it is a task for the entire Church. In that, his choice of name points to a desire to emulate two great saints of the Church: St. Francis Xavier and Francis of Assisi. 

St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, was one of the greatest missionaries in history. The task is to bring Christ to a world confronting modernity. As the synod for the New Evangelization proclaimed last year, the task of the “new evangelization consists in presenting once more the beauty and perennial newness of the encounter with Christ.” 

The future pontiff said in the same interview with the parish bulletin that the New Evangelization must plant the Gospel in every part of society and culture.  

In addition, his election represents a powerful impulse for reform that is rooted in the Church’s traditions of service and humility. Here his choice of papal name again becomes significant because of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great reformers in Church history. The cardinals stressed that reform must be a task for the next pope as the Roman Curia, the central government of the Church, stands in need of genuine improvement and reorganization. Francis of Assisi helped renew the Church through a thoroughgoing spiritual renewal, rooted in Christlike humility. Pope Francis will likely apply that same approach. No meaningful reform of Church institutions can be achieved without spiritual reform and renewal, and the Roman Curia is no exception. Just last year, he gave an address in which he noted the “clerical hypocrites” in the Church, so he brings as well toughness and strength of purpose. 

In an unprecedented gesture in the long history of popes being presented on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis prayed with the faithful and asked for their prayers and blessing, then gave his blessing to them. It was a poignant moment, but it also showed his own humility and spoke to the fact that his pontificate is something beautifully new in the 2,000 years of Church history. 

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.

Did You Know?
Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina  
He studied chemistry and planned to be a chemist 
He had a lung removed in his teens because of an infection 
He is a fan of the Buenos Aires soccer team San Lorenzo  
He cooked his own food as archbishop  
He served as ordinary for Eastern-rite faithful in Argentina who lack an Ordinary of their own rite