The white smoke has wafted up through the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The bells have rung. A new Pope has emerged and spoken to the gathered thousands in St. Peter's Square. A new papacy has begun, and we will watch to see what this choice says over the long run.
It has been said that the name a Pope takes speaks volumes. If that is true then the newly elected head of the Roman Catholic Church and likely the most influential religious figure in the world (that's why we Protestants pay close attention to the election of a Pope) is auspicious. For a Jesuit (the first from his order) from Argentina (first from Latin America) to choose the name of one of the most beloved religious figures is momentous.
Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen the name Francis I as his papal name. Perhaps it's appropriate for the first non-European Pope to take a name that embodies deep spirituality, humility, concern for the poor, and outreach to those beyond the bounds of the church.
We won't know for sure what kind of Pope he will be. He will be theologically orthodox and socially conservative, but perhaps he will be more willing to listen to other voices. It has been said that he came in second to Benedict the last time around, and is seen as more open than his predecessor. It would seem that he's not aligned with the church's political factions, has a pastoral heart, and has shown concern for the poor and the marginalized.
What appears to mark his ministry in Argentina is his humility and even his austerity. In the Los Angeles Times article, it says:
Bergoglio stands out for his austerity. As Argentina's top church official, he's never lived in the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires, preferring a simple bed in a downtown room heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he took public transportation around the city, and cooked his own meals.
He's older than many might have hoped, but maybe that's a good thing. Another relatively brief papacy might give some of the younger leaders time to develop into the kind of leader the church needs for the longer haul. And having a leader who comes from the Southern Hemisphere is a powerful sign that a church dominated by its European Cardinals recognized that the bulk of the church comes from outside Europe and North America. I expect that we will see him appoint more Cardinals from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The next Pope could come from Africa or the Philippines. Italy may have seen its last pope, at least for a long time. I'm still not convinced a Pope from the United States is a likely possibility anytime soon, even that could surprise us.
When John Paul II was elected to the papacy as the first non-Italian in nearly five hundred years, we thought it was an anomaly. Then Benedict XVI came along, and now Francis I. Trends have a way of extending themselves.
I am not Roman Catholic. The new Pope won't define my faith or practice for me. But, he is my brother in Christ. And so I will pray for him and for his church. I will, of course, pray that he will be open to moves of the Holy Spirit. The fact that he wasn't counted among the front runners suggests the Spirit might have been moving (especially with such a quick vote). Perhaps he will receive the same guidance received by the one Catholics consider the first Pope -- Peter (Acts 10). He had a vision that changed his outlook, and led him to embrace Gentiles into the church. May the same happen for this modern church as it progresses through the 21st Century.