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A Latin American Pope

Pope Francis I leaves after a general audience in the Paul VI hall for members of the media at the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Pope Francis I leaves after a general audience in the Paul VI hall for members of the media at the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Reuters

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as Pope certainly made history.

My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am

Pope Francis, as he will be known, is the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to become Pope. His choice of the name Francis, in honour of St Francis of Assisi, who identified himself with the poor (and is the patron saint of Italy), is highly significant.

The fact that the Cardinals chose an Argentinian Pope is widely seen as a reflection of the Catholic Church’s growth in Latin America – where 40 per cent of all Catholics reside. Pope Francis told Catholics gathered at St Peter’s Square soon after his election: “My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.”

I can’t say I am surprised by the choice of a Latin American Pope. In fact, I expected it, although I had no idea which of the Cardinals from the Americas would be chosen to replace Pope Benedict.

Before the papal conclave began, Cardinal Bergoglio was not mentioned as a possible papabile (considered to have a good chance of being elected Pope), and in fact it was another Cardinal from Argentina, Leonardo Sandri, who was listed among the papabili. However, as the saying goes, “Who enters the conclave as a Pope comes out a Cardinal”.

It is interesting that Cardinal Bergoglio reportedly came second in the papal election to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, but he kept such a low profile that few analysts considered him to be a leading candidate in this election.

However, he must have been the frontrunner this time as he was elected on the second day of the conclave, and after only the fifth vote.

The new Pope is said to be a very humble man and as he appeared on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square he broke with tradition and asked the crowd to bless him and pray for him.

When he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he chose not to live in a large mansion but in a small apartment; he also shunned his limousine for public transport. As Archbishop, he would wash the feet of Aids patients and often spoke up in favour of the poor.

All this gives us a good idea of what type of papacy we can expect from Pope Francis. He is said to be quite liberal in areas of social policy and once described inequality as “a social sin that cries out to Heaven”, and has emphasised the Church’s duty to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

On the main questions of doctrine, however, Pope Francis conforms completely to the Church’s stance on abortion and same-sex marriage, and this is naturally to be expected. The Church cannot change its basic values and beliefs simply in order to become more ‘popular’. On contraception, a number of press reports have indicated that the new Pope supports its use in some cases, notably to prevent the spread of disease. This would be a welcome development, as would a whole review of the Church’s position on contraception.

The new Pope’s challenges are many. St Francis of Assisi received a call from God to “rebuild my Church” and Pope Francis probably believes it is now his duty to rebuild a Church that has been damaged by sex abuse scandals and allegations of corruption within the Roman Curia.

He has already told his Cardinals that the Church could become “a compassionate NGO” without spiritual renewal.

The Pope’s challenges are many. There are a number of policies, not strictly doctrinal, which many ordinary Catholics fail to identify with, such as the Church’s official position on contraception, the ordination of women and clerical celibacy. Many Catholic priests are in fact married, such as ex-Anglicans and the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Eastern Europe.

All these policies can be reviewed and would go a long way in renewing the Church, without contradicting its basic beliefs and values.

The Church also needs to find a solution to the situation that divorced Catholics who remarry find themselves in, and who have long felt excluded from the Church.

The Pope will also have to make it clear that the cover-up of sexual abuse by members of the clergy over the years is a thing of the past and that such abuse will no longer be tolerated.

There is also much work to be done in reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. The fact that Pope Francis has not worked for the Curia will help, as is the fact that he is of Italian origin; the Curia, after all, is staffed mainly by Italians.

I hope Pope Francis will speak up for the rights of Christian minorities in the world, especially in the Middle East and in China, try to reverse the decline of the Church in Europe and play a prominent role on the world stage in the interest of peace and dialogue between nations.

I also hope he will continue the good work of his two predecessors in forging strong ties to other faiths and in working for Christian unity. The announcement that Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople plans to attend the Pope’s inaugural Mass on Tuesday is an encouraging sign.

The Patriarch of Constantinople has not attended a papal installation since 1054, when Constantinople split from Rome.

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