For a church that moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to change and measures time in centuries and millenia, the elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to become leader of the world’s Roman Catholics is both a momentous event and a radical — and welcome — departure from custom.
Pope Francis I, as he will be known, is something new in the tradition-bound Catholic Church — the first non-European pontiff since the 8th Century, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis. It is unusual for the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church to break down so many barriers at one time, but this may be a way for the College of Cardinals to acknowledge that loyalty to tradition does not mean standing still in the face of changing times and new challenges.
Certainly, it was time for the College of Cardinals (in which nearly one of four members is from Italy) to reach out to an area of the world with the largest concentration of Catholics. Roughly one out of every three members of the Catholic Church lives in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly half — 48.75 percent — live in the Western Hemisphere.
Unlike Europe, where demographic growth is stalled because of small families (despite church doctrine that encourges larger families), the New World continues to experience dynamic growth and offers the church greater avenues for growth.
The selection of an Argentine prelate (and son of Italian immigrants) may thus hail a new dawn for the universal church, an opportunity to deepen a relationship with some of its most faithful followers and bring a new vigor to the church’s evangelizing mission. The challenge posed by competing faiths in Latin America is yet another good reason to select a leader from this part of the world.
None of this is to suggest that the new pope, who will be officially installed on Tuesday, will aim to make big changes in church doctrine. An orthodox conservative on religious matters, he has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and a traditionalist on sexuality and the role of women.
But by taking the name Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the new pope is evoking humility and taking the church back to its roots as a defender of the poor and vulnerable. A champion of social justice who shunned ostentation, Cardinal Bergoglio criticized abuses of capitalism, worked in the slums and asked his priests to do the same.
Priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock were sternly chastised by the cardinal, and he famously washed the feet of AIDS victims to show devotion to the neediest.
Among his many challenges will be to shake up the Roman curia, the insiders blamed for the pedophile scandals swirling around the church and the intrigue that bred embarrassing headlines around the world. The pope must make reform of the Vatican’s administrative apparatus a priority.
In the United States, making the church more relevant will be one of the new pope’s biggest challenges. According to the Pew Center on Religion & Public Life, the share of U.S. Catholics who attend mass at least once a week has dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012.
The new pope’s devotion to his faith and gestures of humility have won him admiration at home and among his peers around the world. His deeds and words speak to a powerful vision of what the church should be, and suggest that the College of Cardinals chose wisely in picking the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.