The Roman Catholic Church has a new pope, the very first church leader to hail from the Southern Hemisphere. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now known simply as Pope Francis, choosing a name that is at once familiar and very telling of the direction the new pope will likely take as he guides this one billion plus member church.
Cardinal Bergoglio’s election on March 13 surprised some including not a few of the church leaders (cardinals) that voted for him. Bergoglio was chosen on just the second day of balloting and immediately picked the name Francis to identify his papacy.
The pope’s name is a tribute to Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian friar lauded for his service to the poor. Indeed that Francis, born Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, gave up his earthly riches to minister to the poor and out of that service the Franciscan order rose up to proclaim the gospel.
Pope Francis said that he chose his name to honor the 13th century friar and to make known his desire for the Catholic Church to be an institution “of the poor, for the poor.”
At his first Vatican press conference Pope Francis proclaimed that Jesus, not the pope, is at the center of the church. The pope also called for the church “to stick to the faith’s Gospel roots and shun modern temptations.” He added, “The Church must not become just another charitable group without its divine mission.”
Pope Francis is the son of Italian immigrants and was born in Buenos Aires in 1933. He became a priest in 1969 and moved up in the church hierarchy before being elevated to cardinal in 2001. Despite his very advanced position, the head of the Argentine church maintained a simple apartment and took public transportation to work, eschewing the royalty-like trappings typically enjoyed by church leaders.
The pope told his cardinals to keep their eyes on the mission even as the church continues to work through its many problems including leadership infighting, sexual scandal and moral erosion. Reported Reuters, “Let us never give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the devil places before us every day. Let us not give into pessimism and discouragement.” The pope also reminded his cardinals of the influence that they have among young people, “We are in old age. Old age is the seat of wisdom. Like good wine that becomes better with age, let us pass on to young people the wisdom of life.”
Will the new pope’s direction win over critics? That may not happen for two groups of people: liberals and some evangelical Christians. Although both groups are diametrically opposed to each other, they have one thing in common: both oppose nearly everything that the Roman Catholic Church represents. The first group does so for the church’s adherence to traditional values and biblical authority, the latter for Rome’s spiritual primacy and deep doctrinal differences. Neither group will likely influence the new pope as he seeks to advance the authority that he believes has been vested to him by Jesus Christ, the church’s bridegroom.
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