Pope Francis

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

Habemus papam: With these words, a new leader was introduced to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. But who is Pope Francis? And what are the implications of his election for American Catholics and the church in general?

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Likely chosen (on the fifth ballot) as a caretaker pope, the 76-year-old is a native of Argentina and the son of Italian immigrants. With one foot in the Americas and the other in Europe, he offers something new along with the comfort of the familiar.

Pope Francis’ election was a nod to demographic realities. The church is declining in Europe and North America, but growing in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. More Catholics live in Central and South America than in any other region of the world.

Read more Blade editorials

Already, there are indications the new Pontiff will forge his own path. He is the first pope to take the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. When the votes were counted, Cardinal Bergoglio reportedly told his electors: “May God forgive you.”

When Pope Francis made his first public appearance, instead of blessing the spectators in St. Peter’s Square, he asked them to pray for him. He declined to stand on a platform that would have raised him above the cardinals.

On his first full day as Pope, Francis went personally to his hotel to pay his bill and pick up his luggage. He has eschewed the usual pomp and regalia of the papacy for a simpler style. These acts are consistent with his reputation for humility. In Buenos Aires, he lived in a simple apartment, took the bus to work, and cooked his own meals.

Popes most often choose names of church leaders they admire or would like to emulate. St. Francis gave up wealth and privilege to establish an order of friars who owned nothing, but traveled from place to place preaching. The 12th-century saint, who said he was told in a dream to rebuild the church, personified humility, poverty, and simplicity.

The new Pope’s choice of name suggests an emphasis on the Gospel, a renewed focus on preaching and the poor, and reform based on simple, humble virtues. That would be consistent with his history.

As bishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio clashed with the Argentine government on social issues. He has been outspoken on matters of global poverty and social justice. He has been a champion of the poor.

At the same time, he opposed the more-radical liberation theology. And he stood with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II in opposition to abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.

The new Pope is said to be a good manager. He’ll need those skills at the Vatican, where intrigue and scandal have run rampant, and in the wider church, which still is reeling from its sexual abuse scandal. But he may not be a modern administrator; little in his background suggests he will make the church bureaucracy less rigidly hierarchical or more transparent.

A Vatican spokesman said the new Pope shares with St. Francis “a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.” But who will that definition include?

Will it include gays and lesbians who are denied the legal equality of civil marriage? Or women who can’t follow what they believe is their calling to become priests? Or other women whose escape from poverty, perpetual pregnancy, and potential early death is family planning?

Hope for progressive Catholics may rest on two things. The first is that while Cardinal Bergoglio has opposed gay marriage and abortion rights, they don’t appear to be at the top of his agenda.

The second is that caretaker popes sometimes surprise their electors. Pope John XXIII, selected as a stop-gap choice, rocked the church. Early indications are that Pope Francis intends to do more than keep St. Peter’s chair warm.