Commentary: A Latin American Pope Who Will Be Eagerly Watched

Pope Francis I, the first non-European leader of the Catholic Church in 1,000 years, is likely to breathe new life into the Vatican.

Posted: 03/13/2013 04:18 PM EDT

The college of cardinals of the Catholic Church have selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the first leader of the church ever selected from South America. And it is a development that is bound to energize interest in the church and fill Catholics with great eagerness to see precisely what kind of leader he will be.

The selection, which seemed to take the firmament of media pundits completely by surprise, ushers in a new and fascinating era in the life of a church that has been stricken by sex abuse scandals and reports of financial irregularities.

The selection of the 76-year-old cardinal, who is now known as Pope Francis I, is a selection of extraordinary historic proportions. He has been known as a cardinal with a strong management background who has spoken out publicly against corruption by elected officials and office holders. At the same time, he is highly admired for his evangelical work with the poor as well as people with AIDS and other ailments. He has even taken to washing the feet of those stricken with various diseases. He is known for shunning the use of a limousine, preferring public transportation.

Significantly, the selection of this pope, a Jesuit who hails from Argentina, speaks to the importance to the church of Latin America, which is home to one of every four of the world’s Catholics. He is the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years. At the same time, the selection also speaks to the importance to the church of having a pope whose personality is already being celebrated for its authenticity and humility.

There is no question that the growth of the Catholic Church is principally in the world’s southern hemisphere, specifically in Africa. Indeed, one of the main concerns of the pope’s resigned predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the growing secular culture of Europeans.

How he takes to the papacy will be something eagerly watched. Francis I is not known for traveling much beyond Argentina and has done little more than a half-dozen interviews with the media in his years as cardinal in Buenos Ares.

There are surely few if any who think there is the faintest chance that the bedrocks of Catholic orthodoxy – the role of women in the priesthood, for example – will change under this papacy. If anything, Francis I is viewed as a traditionalist who has at times clashed with elected officials over progressive policies.

Yet, there is widespread excitement over the man who has already been dubbed as “the People’s Pope.”

What he has said so far was warm and folksy.

“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope said, addressing tens of thousands of the faithful at St. Peter’s Basilica shortly after he emerged from the conclave. He then thanked his fellow cardinals, saying they “have chosen one from far away, but here I am.”

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(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)


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