Will Pope Francis transcend the initial symbolism of his selection?

Posted Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Americans like firsts.

So it's easy to characterize the election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio as the new Roman Catholic pope in record-book terms: first pontiff from the Americas. First Jesuit priest named as a successor to St. Peter. First pope to take the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced his riches for poverty, humility, serving the poor and preaching a message of brotherhood and peace.

But those milestones offer only limited insight into the impact of Bergoglio's elevation, not quite eight years after he finished second in conclave voting to his recently retired predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Still, the naming of Pope Francis is momentous, beyond the ubiquitous "Sistine smokecam" and the gee-whizzing about him paying his own hotel bill the day after becoming head of one of the world's largest organized religions.

A new pope is important for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics (more than 66 million in the United States) but also as an international event.

Catholics are divided over social issues, the stain of the sexual abuse scandal remains stubborn and the Vatican bureaucracy has been full of conflict. But, as National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John L. Allen Jr. pointed out, the church also has had a "traditional role as a voice of conscience on the global stage." (bit.ly/16tZ1eO)

Pope John Paul II spoke out on the death penalty as well as abortion, and he opposed a U.S. invasion of Iraq, calling force a last resort and saying: "War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity." (bit.ly/15P1uz7)

Benedict tried to rein in nuns who he believed were straying, but he also spoke about protecting the environment and the danger of economic chasms. "It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism," he wrote on New Year's Day. (bit.ly/Wbnkre)

Analysts see enormous symbolism in the selection of choosing Francis, a non-European who has spent much of his career as a minister close to the faithful rather than as a Vatican insider.

In an institution steeped in ritual and tradition, symbols are significant.

But the new pope also is a study in contrasts.

Like his namesake, Francis, 76, is reported to live humbly, forgoing the archbishop's fancy residence in Buenos Aires for a simple apartment and taking public transit to work.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, he told Latin American bishops in 2007 that "We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," and that the unjust distribution of goods creates a "social sin that cries out to Heaven." (bit.ly/ZAE2QI)

But he has critics who say he didn't do enough for the people in the 1970s when his country was ruled by a military dictatorship and he was head of Argentinian Jesuits. He and his supporters have denied suggestions that he might even have been complicit in brutalities against a pair of Jesuit priests.

The Jesuits, the largest Catholic religious order, also take a vow of poverty, but they are known more as scholars and missionaries. They've spread Catholicism worldwide and run 28 U.S. colleges and universities, including Georgetown in Washington, D.C., St. Louis University and current men's basketball powerhouse Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash.

But don't mistake Pope Francis for a freethinker.

He's not expected to budge from his immediate predecessors' strict positions on birth control, the role of women in the church or other issues particularly contentious among U.S. Catholics. He has called same-sex marriage, which Argentina legalized in 2010, "a destructive pretension against the plan of God." (nyr.kr/Zq9Edx)

How well he is listened to, inside and outside the church, will depend on whether he can bolster the institution's credibility and what he emphasizes as major moral challenges.

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