The Catholic Church has made an extraordinary break from tradition with the election of the first non-European pope in 1,200 years, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first Jesuit.
The question is whether 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis, will have the charisma, imagination and sheer tough-mindedness to re-energize the church and reform its scandal-prone administrative arm.
Pope Francis is not expected to take moral and political stands that differ from his two conservative predecessors. Like popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who appointed him cardinal in 2001, he has traditional views on abortion, contraception and gay partnerships, though he has said that gays must be treated with respect and compassion.
“He is a John Paul II man who will continue to lead the church in the direction of the new evangelization,” said George Weigel, author of many books on the Catholic Church, referring to the church’s mission to preach the Gospel in a modern, energetic way in a secular world.
The election of Pope Francis Wednesday as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics came as a shock, just as the abdication of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, shocked the world last month. Almost no one inside or outside the Vatican, from authors who have written about the Vatican for decades to diplomats to the Holy See, had put him high on the list of contenders.
If he was mentioned at all, it was as a long shot, a dark horse, well behind Italy’s Angelo Scola, Brazil’s Odilo Scherer and Canada’s Marc Ouellet.
Where Francis might make a difference is in reform of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s Italian-controlled bureaucracy that has been widely accused of being “dysfunctional” because of fighting, cover-ups, scandals such as the “Vatileaks” case and general behaviour not befitting a church that also has to govern itself as a state with global reach. As an outsider to the Vatican hierarchy and someone who has spent most of his career well away from Rome, there are already high hopes that Pope Francis will not hesitate to fight the Curia’s entrenched interests.
The white smoke from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel came at 7:06 p.m., local time, signalling that a candidate had received the required two-thirds voting majority. His election took five ballots over a day and a half. That was lightning fast by conclave standards, destroying the theory earlier on Wednesday that the 115 elector cardinals were deadlocked.
When the white smoke went up, the enormous crowd – estimated at 100,000 – in St. Peter’s Square erupted in applause. Then the waiting game came in the rain. His identity would not be revealed until an excruciating 75 minutes later, when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, resplendent in his new white papal robes.
By then, the rain had stopped. Pope Francis immediately established a rapport with the audience. He greeted the crowd in Italian with a warm “Buona sera” – Good evening – and even drew laughter from the crowd. “As you know, cardinals were picking a bishop from Rome,” he said. “It seems like my brother cardinals have picked him from the end of the world, but here we are.”
He then offered a prayer for the former pope Benedict (now pope emeritus), asked the people to pray for him and delivered his first message: “Let’s start this path of brotherhood, love and faith among us. Let’s always pray for each other, and for the whole world, for it to have a great brotherhood.”
Vatican commentators said his debut was nothing short of a hit. Monsignor Mark Langham of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity told the BBC that the Pope’s immediate rapport with his audience suggested he would present a “humble, approachable type of papacy.”
He has always maintained a low profile and striven to live a simple life, which is reflected in his papal name. His new life of luxury in Rome, in the power-obsessed Vatican, may come as a shock.
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