The Conclave in the Vatican surprised with its election as Pontiff Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Pope Francis represents a number of firsts for the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first Pope from South America, the first non-European in 1200 years, the first Jesuit, and the first pontiff to take the name Francis.
This was about as radical a choice the Conclave, given the conservative predispositions of its membership, could make for the future of the Church. Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, has called the election seriously historic.
The Pope's long-awaited appearance on the balcony in St Peter's Square was surprisingly simple, as he introduced himself with a friendly 'buona sera' and asked the 100,000 plus crowd to pray for him. He showed little hint of being overwhelmed by the burden which has been placed on his shoulders.
For a church plagued by scandal and declining relevance in the developed world, the election of a Pope not linked to the Curia and apparently not linked to the Church's scandals (even if there are questions about his role during Argentina's dictatorship) offers significant hope for renewal. That Francis is from the Jesuit order, renowned for its promotion of social justice, commitment to human rights and education and famous for its charismatic appeal, will probably assist him to increase the profile of the good works, rather than the problems, of the Church worldwide.
This is perhaps a seminal moment for the Roman Catholic Church but does it really matter for international affairs? Will the new Pope have a hope of being influential in world politics in the way that some of his predecessors, most notably Pope John Paul II in modern times, have been?
It is perhaps too early to predict, but there are some clues to indicate the likely focus of Francis' papacy. Cardinal Bergoglio's choice of name invokes two of the Church's most important saints – St Francis Xavier, who with St Ignatius Loyola started the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and is known as the Church's greatest missionary for his work in Asia, and the highly venerated St Francis of Assisi, who was known for his humility and love of the poor — suggests he will prioritise issues of social justice.
As an Argentinian, Pope Francis represents the global 'south' so will likely take a proactive stance on global development issues and advocate the needs of developing countries to global forums and rich country governments. In US President Obama he may have a receptive partner, just as John Paul II found in Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Pope Francis' own humility, and a statement he made in 2009 in relation to Argentinian government policies — 'human rights are violated by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities' — hints at an enduring commitment to advocating the rights of the poor.
As a Latin American, he represents the region with the most practising Catholics but also one with vast experience of poverty. A Vatican that is much more vested in addressing poverty might see more concerted Church pressure on developed countries to improve their aid and trade policies and provide more opportunities to developing countries. In a world still beset by financial crises, this kind of advocacy from the leader of the world's largest faith could prove decisive.
If Pope Francis can be the best advocate for the south, restore the reputation of a severely battered church in the west and fulfil his Jesuit mission of building the Catholic flock, he stands a chance of being a very great Pope.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.