When, clad in papal white instead of cardinal red, Pope Francis stepped onto the balcony to behold the ecstatic crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, he stepped into a changed world—one where his own election as the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic Church was the object of attention of billions around the world in print, on television and radio, and in the social media (the last something no new pope has had to deal with).
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is seen as a symbol of reform empowered by his peers. Instead of naming a Vatican insider to succeed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the college of cardinals chose a Jesuit from South America, a 76-year-old man of the middle class who, among other things, holds a master’s degree in chemistry apart from a degree in philosophy. That he is the first Pope from the Americas is in itself a significant change—an outsider chosen to lead the powerful institution that is the Church.
Francis’ election appears to be a recognition of the fact that Latin America is home to over 200 million Catholics, or 39 percent of the entire Church. But whether someone from the global South will be able to make a dent in the Curia remains to be seen. Still, the cardinals elected the first Pope from the Society of Jesus, which has a long and difficult history with the Vatican; it is yet another signal that they expect something different and something new from their leader.
But His Holiness is saddled with considerable baggage, which analysts and critics now cite in the course of scrutinizing his bona fides to reform and lead a Church wounded by scandals concerning sex abuse and corruption. He has been criticized for his unseemly silence toward, if not outright complicity with, the abuses and excesses of the military dictatorship when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. And while Jesuits have often been identified with radical thinking and independent action, he is known to be a conservative theologian with a strong position against reproductive health rights and liberation theology.
Days after the euphoria of his election, the reality should have sunk in: Francis inherits the most beleaguered Church in modern history, the problems surrounding which, by his retirement, Benedict admitted to having difficulty contemplating, let alone addressing. But Francis was elected in a moment of optimism, and there is guarded hope that this “slum Pope” who once chose to live among the poor in Buenos Aires can take the Church forward. Even his choice of name evokes many possibilities, as though the act of bringing change to the Church may also change him.
It is said that Francis’ most outstanding quality is his simplicity. The details are now well-known, thanks to the same print, TV and radio, and social media that informed the world of his election—his eschewing the archbishop’s palace reserved for him in Buenos Aires, choosing to live in the city itself, in a building unheated during weekends, comforting single mothers and recovering drug addicts. He was also said to prefer taking the bus instead of the limousine reserved for him—something that he also did right after being named Pope (he even carried his own bags and paid his bill).
He set a powerful example to other priests and Church officials all over the world, and especially here in the predominantly Catholic Philippines where some of the clergy’s manor-like homes (swimming pools included) and luxury vehicles provide shocking contrast to the squalor of the poor.
Indeed, there is guarded hope that Francis may begin to reform the Church in an era of turbulence, conflict and unmet fundamental needs. There is guarded hope that his personal simplicity will resonate among those drunk with pomp and circumstance, that his being a Jesuit, a man for others, will mean a global resurgence of concern for the impoverished. This is the Church’s great time of need, a time to confront the problems of a millennium, on a planet with more poor people than ever, and faith losing its bearings. The task ahead is immense.
And indeed when Francis looked out at the hopeful faces of the faithful, he asked for their help: “I ask a favor of you… Pray for me. And I will see you soon.” The new Pope for a new world looked up, and though the rain had fallen that Wednesday, the sun shone a bit brighter than before.