In just about every way imaginable, this is a new kind of pope.
Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, is the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas. Judging from his history, this first Pope Francis is a humble man of simple tastes, as was the austere 13th century friar from whom he took his name, St. Francis of Assisi.
Cardinal Bergoglio lived in a simple apartment in Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals, rode the bus and often visited the city’s slums.
After being elected Wednesday, Francis asked the throng gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him. Although at age 76 he is not a young man, he seems to serve the church’s contemporary needs well.
His modesty and humble nature may serve as a tonic for the church, which remains roiled in problems that threaten its mission. What is more, with the church’s center of gravity shifting southward, to Africa and South America, the church may be able to build on its influence in those regions.
Francis is another traditionalist pope, which will be welcomed by many in those regions. Indeed, many people in this country and in others will find that to their liking. Still, others in North America and Europe might have preferred a leader who would offer reforms on issues such as celibacy, birth control, same-sex marriage and women priests, all controversial issues within the church.
Nevertheless, we suspect that even those who hoped for that kind of leader didn’t really expect that from a church that holds firm to its doctrines. In that context, most of those people, we suspect, will welcome the election of Pope Francis.
There is a legitimate concern about the new pope’s age, given the great challenges facing the church. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, resigned from the papacy because, at 85, he lacked the strength to grapple effectively with such daunting problems as sexual abuse by priests, coverups by their leaders and the Vatican City administration, which is mired in allegations of corruption and misconduct. Benedict was two years older than Francis is today when he was elected pope.
Catholics traditionally rally around their pope and, in some cases, such as that of Pope John Paul II, non-Catholics do, as well. No man is a perfect choice and, while some have criticized what they see as this pope’s failure to oppose widespread governmental abuses in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, we suspect that most will find this pope to their liking. His test will be to meet the challenges of the church and retain that sense of affection.