Habemus Papam Franciscum came the tweet, the first official word from the @Pontifex account, after the white smoke curled from the copper chimney watched by hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square, by millions and millions on every imaginable 21st century technology around the world. And there it was, old and new, past and present, the arrival of a Pope who for the first time hails from “the most unequal part of the world,” as he once called Latin America, who cooked his own dinners and rode the bus and took his regnal name from the sainted champion of the least among us. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, brings to the throne of St. Peter a concern about the “spiritual sickness” that can afflict a church if it seems to care more for its priests than its people. “I want you to bless me,” he told the crowd, before it was his turn to bless them. He noted that his brother Cardinals had gone “to the end of the earth” to find the new Bishop of Rome. But there was a kind of subtle, rounded—perhaps divine—justice to it all. And by the time his brief debut was over, it was already clear that a profound change had occurred in an institution famously resistant to it.
The accession of a new Pope is always cause for wonderment—if only because the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has managed to survive more trials than almost any other kingdom in history. No other institution can claim to have withstood Attila the Hun, the ambitions of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great power.
Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must reform the Vatican’s finances by way of a bureaucracy that originated in medieval times and is burdened by aristocratic privilege and the Machiavellian instincts of feudal Italy. He must respond to the opposing demands of a divided flock—with many Catholics in North America and Europe asking for more-liberal interpretations of doctrine even as many in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith. Unlike some of the cataclysmic challenges in the church’s past, these problems are internal—but as such, they are more difficult to resolve.
And then there is the unprecedented presence of his old conclave rival, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI—distinguished and professing to be silently retired yet still an embodiment of a conservative legacy that will be difficult to touch while he remains alive. With all this to handle, fighting Napoleon and the Turks may well have been easier.
Bergoglio almost made history eight years ago, when he was rumored to have been the only real challenger in the several rounds of balloting that led to the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI. That itself was history: Ratzinger became the second consecutive non-Italian to head the Roman Catholic Church. Now Bergoglio too has made history, as the first Pope from Latin America. Yet as the son of Italian immigrants, he has also brought the papacy back home to the land of his ancestry. Full circle, yes, but with a great many detours.
Outside the papal conclave, the handicappers had some obvious favorites and inevitable dark horses. Bergoglio was neither. Among the natural heirs were the Cardinal of Milan, who seemed to have been promoted quickly through important offices by Benedict XVI, and the Cardinal of São Paulo, a favorite among the bureaucrats of the Roman Curia. Even another Argentine Cardinal was more favored than Bergoglio. But as the old saying goes, He who enters the conclave a Pope leaves it a Cardinal. Almost everyone had overlooked Bergoglio, 76, believing he was too far along in years and that his moment had passed. He was also a Jesuit, and no Jesuit had ever been Pope before.