The Roman Catholic Church has a new spiritual leader. During spring break, Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papal throne after a vote from his peers.
As a member of the “conclave,” the session that led to the election of the new pope, Bergoglio was a cardinal (though he didn’t have to be, as I incorrectly reported in my previous column on this subject). The American media hyped the possibility of the next pope being from Ghana or even America, but Bergoglio is breaking all kinds of history on his own. He is the first non-European pope since the Apostle Peter; he hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the first pope to be a Jesuit, an intellectual religious order within the Catholic Church. Even his papal name is significant and symbolic – no other pope has chosen to name himself after St. Francis.
St. Francis of Assisi was an Italian friar who swore himself to poverty and ministry. In becoming Francis I, Bergolio demonstrated a new commitment to serve the poor. Greed has been a major criticism of the Catholic Church in recent times; it seems inappropriate for the Vatican City to be seemingly snuggled in luxury and wealth while a largely Catholic country like Haiti is drowning in poverty. Francis intends to change things; media outlets like National Catholic Reporter and The Guardian report that Francis has stated his interest in creating a church of and for the poor, for peace and protection.
But Pope FrancisÂ isn’tÂ entirely progressive; he struggled relentlessly against gay marriage in his home country of Argentina. His opponents have even suggested the language he used in his arguments caused more support for gay rights. Likewise, there is little to indicate that Francis will spend time addressing the inequality of men and women in the Church.
The election of Francis represents a shift in the concentration of Catholicism. As Europe secularizes, the Roman Catholic Church has largely moved to places like South America. Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation at age 85 was because of an unhealthy old age that caused a confessed inability to properly lead the Church. Laughably, his successor is 76. In spite of his age, electing Bergoglio was no mistake; the Church has acknowledged its need to address the issues of poverty and the future of its membership.