Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wasn’t quite the bold choice many were hoping for in a new pope. Personally, I was rooting for a younger, more out-of-the-box possibility like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. At 76, Pope Francis is on the older side and faces not only a demanding role as global leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but also the myriad challenges of a secretive institution that has not fully confronted the depth of its scandals. At a minimum, he will need the blessing of stamina.
Let’s face it: a visionary reformer was never likely to emerge from the conclave. After all, the majority of voting cardinals (and realistic candidates) was put in place by the conservative Pope Benedict–a reward for toeing the party line. Needless to say, Cardinal Bergoglio’s conservative credentials are more than intact: stridently anti-abortion, he has gone head to head with Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, over gay marriage and the free distribution of birth control.
Indeed, on many substantive issues, he seems cut from the same cloth as his conservative predecessor: ordaining women? No way. Liberation theology? A scourge. Moreover, Bergoglio has faced swirling allegations of condoning, if not complicity with, Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship that in the 1970s “disappeared” some 30,000 opponents, allegations he has vigorously denied but that still dog him. Some Argentinians continue to complain that he did not speak out forcefully enough against the violence and tyranny of the military regime and that when he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires (1998) and then cardinal (2001), he did not do enough to examine the church’s role in the conflict. In several interviews over the years, he has defended his behavior, citing his efforts to help protect various people at risk. Given that he supposedly came in second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave, the Vatican has had ample time to consider, and dismiss, these criticisms.
Despite being another conservative septuagenarian, Cardinal Bergoglio is in some ways an exciting choice for the papacy. The first person from the Americas to gain the post, Bergoglio’s selection in part reflects the fact that the majority of Catholics now hail from the global south. Central and South America are home to some 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, and from Mexico to Chile there is tremendous enthusiasm and hope that Pope Francis represents an opportunity for that part of the world to exert more influence in Rome. “It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world [to pick me],” Bergoglio noted wryly after being chosen.
Perhaps most importantly, Bergoglio is also the first Jesuit to become pope. Founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus is a Catholic order associated for centuries with intellectualism, education and the founding of schools (think Georgetown), ministry to the sick and poor, and an emphasis on social justice. Following a religious epiphany, St. Ignatius vowed to renounce his comfortable existence and dedicate himself to a life of good works modeled after the 12th-century spiritual leader St. Francis of Assisi, among others. Cardinal Bergoglio is the first to choose Francis as his papal name, and by all accounts, he strives to lead a humble life. Much has been made of the fact that he sold the archbishop’s elegant residence in Buenos Aires, opting instead to live in a small apartment and take the bus to work. He seems to walk the talk of humility.
Whether Pope Francis is up to the daunting challenges confronting the Catholic Church today remains to be seen. The scandals have shaken the faith of many, but the fact remains that around the world, the Catholic Church plays a vital on-the-ground role in places where few others are willing to serve. Many Catholic nuns, priests, and other affiliates are not only faith leaders, but also aid workers on the front lines of some of the harshest conditions, making deep sacrifices to serve the poorest of the poor. Pope Francis is long known for speaking out on behalf of those who have least. At a time of growing inequality, he has an important role to play.