Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013.
The 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world have a new leader, Pope Francis, whose election was somewhat surprising as well as swift.
Elected Wednesday on the fifth ballot by the College of Cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina had been barely mentioned as a candidate. After Pope Benedict shocked many of the faith with his resignation last month, speculation focused on a number of possible successors. Given the crises the Catholic church faces in respect to how the church has dealt with child abuse by priests and with leaked papal documents on corruption and rivalry that were intended to be kept secret, many thought the cardinals would select a younger man, one who would be skilled at improving the church’s image and with attracting younger people to the church.
In making his historic decision to abdicate his position — the first pope to resign in six centuries — Benedict, 85, cited his age and health issues.
Francis, however, was one of the oldest eligible candidates at age 76. He is seen as a reformer, and as being media shy. He is the first Jesuit to ascend to the papacy and, even rarer than Benedict’s resignation, he is the first non-European pope in 13 centuries.
Perhaps Bergoglio’s ascension to pope should not have been so surprising. He was 32 before he became a priest following the loss of a lung that caused him to stop studying chemistry. By the time was 37, he was leading his local Jesuit community. His biographer, Francesca Ambrogetti, told Reuters that Francis is a moderate who has strong negotiating skills and isn’t afraid to challenge powerful interests.
By reaching into Latin America for the new pope, the cardinals also have energized one of the Catholic church’s strongest regions. About 80 percent of South America is Catholic, along with 75 percent of Central America and 78 percent of the Caribbean nations. North and South America are home to nearly half — 48.8 percent — of all Catholics, according to Wikipedia. By contrast, 37.9 percent of the world’s Catholics reside in Europe.
Given the intrigue going on these days in the Vatican, the cardinals were wise to choose an “outsider” — Francis quipped Wednesday: “As you know, the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world.”
It may take an outsider and a reformer to tackle the Vatican bureaucracy and get the church past its difficulties.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board