On Wednesday white smoke billowed from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel, alerting the world to the Vatican’s choice of its new leader. French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran emerged to utter the traditional Latin words: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam” (“I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope.”)
For the first time in 1,300 years, since Syrian-born Pope Gregory III, a non-European has been chosen to represent the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. Taking the papal name of Francis, the Argentine pope is also the first Jesuit and first Latin American ever to be selected for the role. Predictions leading up to the conclave’s decision had placed Angelo Scola or Milan and Peter Turkson of Ghana at the head of the pack.
While this may disappoint fans of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of the Philippines, it is still an interesting choice from an Asia-Pacific perspective. The church’s geographical base is increasingly found beyond Europe. Latin America has the largest Catholic population, comprising some 480 million members. The Philippines is the largest Christian nation in Asia and the third-largest Catholic nation in the world.
“The election of a pope from the ‘new world’ is an occasion of genuinely historic proportions,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. “Today is an exciting day for Australian Catholics and perhaps especially for Australians of Argentinian descent. My thoughts are with them all.”
When Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony before a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he broke with tradition off the bat. Rather than blessing the crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands, he said, “Let us say this prayer, your prayer for me, in silence.” This simple gesture, pundits suggest, has many wondering if greater changes may be on the way.
As he addressed the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis added: “As you know, the duty of the conclave was to appoint a Bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from faraway. … Here I am. I would like to thank you for your embrace.”
At 76, Pope Francis has his work cut out for him. These are turbulent times for the 2,000-year old Catholic Church, beset by a child sex abuse scandal, bureaucratic infighting and struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. These factors, commentators suggest, are precisely why he was chosen.
The issues that concern members of the Latin American Catholic Church are many, with social justice and poverty ranking near the top. Indeed, he chose his papal name after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known as a champion of the poor. This is the first time a pope has taken the name of Francis – yet another deviation from tradition.
Born into a middle-class family of seven, Bergoglio’s father was an Italian immigrant railway worker and his mother was a housewife. Prior to his Vatican move, he lived a simple life, getting around Buenos Aires via public transport and living in a small apartment outside the city. His humble upbringing and unadorned lifestyle have allowed him to remain aware of the plight of the poor in his home region and beyond.
“As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
While fans of Tagle may be a bit let down, many are betting that the Philippines or Brazil could be the first place that Pope Francis visits. If this is his first destination of choice seems that a shift may really be underway.