The Vatican has finally acknowledged its worldwide role and importance by electing a non-European pope for the first time. The new pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, comes from Argentina and is a Jesuit. He is the first Jesuit to be elected to the high office. After his election, the new pope announced that he would assume the name of Francis. This is also a first since there has never been a Pope Francis before. The choice of this name is an obvious doffing of the papal cap to the saint from Assisi. The sliver of white smoke thus not only announced the election of a new pope but also the possibilities of a new kind of papacy. But before exploring these possibilities, it is perhaps necessary to look at the continuities. One is the issue of age. The College of Cardinals failed to elect a younger pope: Francis I is five years short of 80. He has been, like many other important cardinals, embedded in the Vatican bureaucracy. Even though his roots are in Latin America, he has never been a proponent of or associated with liberation theology. Rather, he is known for his links with certain very conservative lay organizations like Communion and Liberation.
The discontinuities and the possibilities of change lie in the very fact of his election which suggests that the Curia is willing to look beyond Europe, the traditional nursery of the papacy. The choice of the name indicates an empathy for the poor. The new pope is known for his simple lifestyle: in Buenos Aires, he was known to travel by bus. During the economic crisis in Argentina, he spoke for the poor and emphasized the price and consequences of globalization. It will not be unreasonable to expect the new pope to be more sympathetic to the needs of and movements for social justice. At the level of theological practice, it will be interesting to observe how, as a Jesuit, he adjusts to the heavy ritual that informs worship in the Church of Rome. Issues of real change will, of course, focus on the removal of sex related scandals, on same-sex marriage, on militant evangelicalism and, certainly, on abortion. It is not an easy mantle that Francis I inherits; there are too many taints to erase. But all this for the nonce is of secondary consideration for the large flock of the new pope. Roman Catholics across the world must be relieved that they have a Holy Father to bless them over Good Friday and Easter.