After a mere day, the 266th Cardinal of Rome has been elected. A very historic and bold choice for several reasons. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has become the first Latin American pope. Not only the first Latin American but the first Jesuit leader of the Catholic Church even more striking is his choice to be called Pope Francis I.
As I watched the Special Report came in over the television, the white smoke rising from the stack atop the Sistine Chapel announced that the 115 Cardinals gathered within had elected the next leader of millions of faithful worldwide. When 2/3 of the secluded men agreed, the smoke released changed from black to white. The cardinals had to only pass four ballots times to receive the decisive 77 votes.
What does this mean for the church? Prayerfully, Pope Francis will address and confront the issues which have arisen surrounding the church. It will be necessary for him to lead his flock into the 21st century while retaining the values established over centuries. The 100,000+ members of the growing crowd inside St. Peter’s Square who were waving flags of countries all over the world appeared to be a mix of young and old. If the church is to appeal to the masses, the pope must address the concerns of both young and old; rich and poor. Impressive was the mob of onlookers who had amassed upon Vatican City awaiting the announcement while standing in the intermittent rain.
The Pope’s decision to take the name of perhaps one of the most revered and remembered saints may point to the way in which he will lead the 1.2 billion faithful. St. Francis was known for his humility, poverty, simplicity, work with the poor and rebuilding of the Catholic Church. As an Argentinian cardinal, the new pope clashed with that country’s government on their stance which favors gay marriage and free distribution of contraceptives. Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholic community (or 480 million). Instead of living in the palace appointed to archbishop, Bergoglio chose to live simply in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals. Pointing even more to his status as a man of the people, he was seen in the public eye as he rode the bus to work instead of a chauffeured limousine.
Moments after his announcement, Pope Francis broke with tradition in a number of ways. Instead of being raised on a platform above the cardinals, he stood on their level on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Before he offered the blessing on the people, he asked the people to bless himself. He also led those gathered in three prayers which ever Catholic child knows: The Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. A symbolic coincidence or a blessing from beyond was the appearance of a bird on the smokestack moments before the white smoke was released. St. Francis of Assisi is “the patron saint of animals.”
As the latest successor to St. Peter himself, I pray that Pope Francis will lead his people closer to God and make not only the Catholic Church but with the help of all believers to make Christianity even more relevant in this world of confusion and insecurity.