Habemus Papam: Francis, the First Pope from the Western Hemisphere

Almost everyone had forgotten about the Argentine. But he almost beat out Ratzinger the last time around.

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Newly elected Pope Francis I on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio almost made history eight years ago. According to several accounts, he had been the only real contender against Joseph Ratzinger in the first round of balloting that led to the election of the German as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005. That itself was history: Ratzinger became the second consecutive non-Italian as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Now Bergoglio has now made history twice over with his own election as Pope Francis. The Argentine is the first man from the Western Hemisphere to become Pontiff. And, as the son of Italian immigrants, he has won the Papacy back in the land of his ancestry. In his first address, the traditional Urbi et Orbi—to the city and the world—he chided his brother Cardinals for going “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.

Photograph by Stefano Dal Pozzolo–Contrasto/Redux

Bergoglio was a surprise. Every 21st century technology seemed to have been focused on the chimney above the Sistine Chapel—a system put in place in 1939 that spouted smoke signals to communicate its message. And new and old media was bandying about other: the Cardinal of Milan who had seemed to have been promoted quickly through important offices by the retired Benedict XVI; and the Cardinal of Sao Paulo in Brazil, a favorite among the bureaucrats of the 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. Everyone had overlooked Bergoglio, 76, believing he was too far along in years and that his moment had passed. It has only just begun.

(WATCHTIME Video: How Pope Francis Was Elected )

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 vicissitudes 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, Adolf Hitler in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new pope pushes that longevity forward, through fresh crisis and challenge. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other principalities and powers

The weight of history—while majestic—makes the Papacy less than nimble in a world literally rushing forward with the speed of pixelated light. Pope Francis must deal with headlines reminding him of the church’s severe shortcomings in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse even as he has to try to 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 Catholics in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith. Unlike the cataclysmic challenges in the church’s past, these problems are internal but, as such, much more difficult to resolve. And then there is the unprecedented figure of his old Conclave rival, the Pope emeritus—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, countering Napoleon and the Turks might well have been easier.

(PHOTOS: Pope Benedict’s Final General Audience)

Is Francis up for the task? The fact that he held his own in balloting back in 2005 against the formidable Ratzinger shows that he has always had the respect of the Cardinals—and indeed he has enough years of work with the secretive and sclerotic Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, to be able to work with it.

He will also bring much needed oxygen to parts of the Catholic empire. Just before the Conclave that elected him convened, he celebrated his 55th year of joining the Society of Jesus—whose members are popularly called Jesuits. That itself is a matter of rejoicing for the order—even though Bergoglio is on the conservative end of the often liberal Jesuit scale. The order has seen its once formidable influence wane as the star of Opus Dei rose during the reign of John Paul II. Bergoglio’s choice of regnal name too is telling. Many people immediately saw the reference to the great saint of the church, Francis of Assisi. But anyone raised by the Jesuits would have heard the resonance of another great saint and member of the Society of Jesus: the great evangelist to Asia, Francis Xavier.

(PHOTOS: The Catholic Church in the Modern World)

More importantly, the great burst of energy that Bergoglio brings will sweep into his home continent of South America, where Roman Catholicism is losing ground to the combined forces of secularism and Pentecostal Protestantism. From Tierra del Fuego to the U.S. border with Mexico, the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging worshipers to evangelical congregations. According to Latinobarometro, in 1996, Latin American countries were 80% Catholic and only 4% evangelical. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 69% and evangelicals had risen to 13%. Brazil, the country with the most Catholics in the world, could once boast of 99% adherence to Rome. Today, Catholics number 63% to a Pentecostal surge of 22%. Latin American prelates have always looked slightly askance at the charismatic fervor of the Pentecostals and have been reluctant to compete in kind. Bergoglio may be able to use some of the popular enthusiasm from his historic election to rekindle the faith in Latin America.

The question of fealty, however, remains key to the Church. As enormous as it is, it must deal with the fractious faithful—many of whom find Rome and the Holy See more and more distant from their everyday lives. The entrenched priestly sex abuse scandal and the unplumbed depths of the Vatican’s finances only seem to turn off more Catholics by the day. Perhaps Francis can return to the Gospel reading for the Sunday Mass before the conclave, a selection read in Catholic churches around the world. It was the parable of the prodigal son. Many Cardinals use it to talk about bringing back Catholics who had left the church. The church itself may have to discover that it has been prodigal and find a way to return to its people.

MORE: Interactive: Inside the Secret Process

34 comments
neilcole1
neilcole1

Pope Francis is NOT the first pope from the western hemisphere - that was Adrian IV, who was born in England, 0 degrees 24' west of the meridian line and therefore inside the western hemisphere. Please check your facts!

clegoldberg
clegoldberg

The catholic church as an institution is one of the most rotten and dangerous associations on earth. Now they elected a cardinal condemning homosexuality as something "develish", who is against the use of condoms, who is very old and frail (they probably hope they can manipulate him when he falls sick) and who has a shadowy record during the Argentinian dictatorship. No hope of change, just the same old stuff from a clique of very old men.

IbrahimA
IbrahimA

@clegoldberg what do you mean by dangerous association? it helped millions of homeless people every day, provide good education and healthcare in every corner of the world. and what have any other association do to the betterment of the world?

BrendaOldenburg
BrendaOldenburg

@clegoldberg That "shadowy record during the Argentinian dictatorship" was never proven in more than a decade. Where are you getting your sources from?

Sparrow55
Sparrow55

The Cardinals who wanted to get elected, but didn't, are probably claiming the new Pope won because he promised all kinds of "free stuff." 

Secularmind
Secularmind

 Impossible to believe that in 2013 we still have religions that defend violations of human rights and dignity, that are against freedom of thinking, and impossible to believe that in 2013 there are people that openly feel part of an unbrained mass that follow a normal man who thinks he is special to the eyes of God!....why not a homosexual Pope? why not a women Pope? why not a married Pope? Why not a divorced Pope? Why not a Pope who came from a divorced couple? The Pope is not more special than me, but our difference is that he violates human dignity while I defend it!

BrendaOldenburg
BrendaOldenburg

@Secularmind Islam attacks women and homosexuals much more often and much more violently than all of Christianity combined, yet you claim to defend human dignity? You should be ashamed of yourself. I guess it is infinitely easier to attack Christians rather than Muslims, especially when unlike the latter the former very rarely strike back.

IndyRacingNut
IndyRacingNut

Pope Francis is FAR from being the first non-European Pope.  There have been 10 before him.  It's just been 1200+ years since the last one, that's all.  Get your facts straight, Time....Or at least pay somebody who knows a thing or two about history before rushing to publish a story.....

dmj19125
dmj19125

Thank you for this article. With hope we look to the future. I'm Catholic and don't want to be anything else. I just wish it could be more about the faith I love and less aout the filth. All the best to Pope Francis.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@dmj19125 

If you use contraceptives for birth control, if you do not condemn any homosexuals you may know, if you don't formally confess regularly, if you masturbate, if every aspect of your sex life is not directed to propagation, if you do not relinquish every aspect of your being to the Church, you are not fully Catholic, only partial, a Catholic in name only, to paraphrase our own right wing Republican Party.  Forgive my presumption that you vote for that party as well.  

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

The Catholic Church first went astray when they started to be concerned with finance instead of religion. Just my understanding. 

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DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

One of the missions that the Jesuits hold dear are the ideals of helping the poor and protecting the persecuted.  They're also dedicated to upholding the traditional aspects of the Church.

Given the Church's stance on many civil rights issues today, and the fact they still heavily solicit funds from the poor, I'm thinking the Church has been "oh fer" from the Jesuit's point of view for a long time.  It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to social policy.

I'm not expecting there to be, though.  

There's a prediction that this man will be the last pope.  The faithful take that as a sign that the end times are coming.  I take it as a sign that he'll continue the traditional practices of the Catholic church - which will include meddling in politics and other social issues - and lose so many believers that they'll simply fold from a lack of funds, or split into multiple branches with each having their own "pope" - assuming they bother with the same hierarchical forms. It takes a hell of a lot of money to keep the Vatican running and maintaining all of the Church's holdings, after all. You're not going to solicit donations from or hod together a fracturing faith with people who think you're a repressive, hypocritical organization bent more on preserving the organization than tending to the souls of the faithful.  When people get angry enough, they do things that leaders don't like.  It happened before during the Schism and they took a lot of believers with them.  With the divisiveness in the Church today, staunchly maintaining the same traditions won't play well for those who want to believe, but hate the hypocrisy of it all.  And if this happens, how likely is it for another "pope" to be elected? It may be that each country will take their own religion and walk away.  And if you don't have at least enough of the college of cardinals left to elect a new pope, well, that would be that.

It may simply be that he'll oversee the final fall of Catholicism as a unified religion as it inevitably splits up to accommodate the various needs of the societies in which it's practiced.  The prediction is open to interpretation and I, for one, don't believe in "end times". Neither does Occam's Razor.  But society changes and that which doesn't adapt to those changes will die.

Then again, the prediction is most likely wrong.  But my prediction of the direction of the Catholic Church is most likely spot-on.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@DeweySayenoff 

You are a little late in this prediction of a split.  The Orthodox Churches are as old as the Roman Church, and Martin Luther and Henry VIII took it further.  All of the Protestant sects, including the Roman Catholic fear of the evangelicals beat your prediction by a mile.  

The Roman Catholic Church does survive, and this new Pope is just more of the same of 2000 years.  My thoughts about Pope Francis relate to the basic fascist nature of the Church, of covert support of the Nazis (Hitler was Catholic), the Catholic Ratline spiriting Nazis mostly to Argentina after the war, of the largely Italian demographic of Argentina, of the recent fascist history of that country, brought down only by the Falkland War. 

Finally, the football connection between Italy and Argentina.  The crowds in St. Peter's Square are no more than a football rally, flags, cheering, uniforms.  It works in religion as well as in mindless sport.  Both will survive until we have that big Armaggedon and Final Judgement.  

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@formerlyjames @DeweySayenoff Yes, I know about the history of the orthodox churches.  The POINT here was focused on Catholicism as we know it today and the roots of Christianity as it's known in the United States.  The Catholic church in the U.S. will shrivel up and die due to social change.  Only immigration is keeping it alive here, but it's palliative at best.  Its days as a an unchanging ideology are numbered..  In other parts of the world, it's also shrinking.  It's still big in Italy and in Latino countries, but I don't see them surviving directing their operations in (mostly) South and Central America from ROME.  They'll need to be closer to their flock lest they be seen as aloof and distant.

The schism I foresee will be a rival to the Catholic church - less a split into two different religions but one that shares the same form, titles, property and other trappings ALSO calling themselves Catholics, but with a different and more progressive leader.  Which "pope" is which?  After that, the Catholic church will likely disintegrate over the next 20 years.  But the unified church as it is today will be no more.  Thus any leader, though called "pope", won't be the leader of the entire religion.  And that's why THIS pope may be the "last one" of the Catholic faith as we know it.

As for Armageddon and final judgement, well, let's just say I'm not into myths and leave it go at that.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@DeweySayenoff 

If the Jesuit doesn't work, we'll bring in the Dominicans, the Black Friars, and have another Inquisition.

timevicente
timevicente

I stand by my belief that God so loved the Catholics He has had a hand in the election of Pope Francis. Over a billion Catholics and God just wouldn't care to whom goes the papacy?  The new pope is free, however, to toe the line of his Principal, or tread his own chosen path. God is not dictatorial.  From a non Catholic, my prayer ascends to the Most High for the new pontiff''s good health and success. And for the world Catholics', too.  (from Vicente Falculan, Philippines, March 14, 2013, Philippine Time)

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@timevicente 

God certainly didn't care about the gassing of 6 million Jews... Why would He give a damn at all? Her certainly doesn't give a damn if I were to gas you.

dmj19125
dmj19125

@Hadrewsky @timevicente too bad you were born too late to be six million + one.

dmj19125
dmj19125

@Hadrewsky @timevicente @Hadrewsky @timevicente @Hadrewsky @timevicente too bad you weren't 6,000,001

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@dmj19125 


Your God is a FAILURE to stop evil and a FAILURE to even exist.

CLMARKS
CLMARKS like.author.displayName 1 Like

The Bible always means good news.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@CLMARKS 

Explain the "Good News" about a She-bear hunting down kids that make fun of followers. What is is the Good News about God killing the first born off like a sick jerk?

The bible is full of weird as Hell Bronze Age non-sense.... that is it.

carjol
carjol

europe IS part of the western hemisphere, you idiot.  this is first non-european pope.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@carjol Only those countries west of Greenwich through which the meridian that separates the eastern and western hemispheres passes, are actually in the western hemisphere.  That's in England, by the way, which is to the west of most of Europe.  Only the majority of the UK, all of Portugal, most of Spain and part of France are actually countries with territory in the Western Hemisphere.  The rest are wholly in the Eastern Hemisphere, from which the vast majority of popes have come.

Most of Europe is often called part of the Western World because of the political alliances of most of the European countries, though it's mostly not in the Western Hemisphere. Many people are confused by that.  Therein may be why you think Europe is in the Western Hemisphere.

carjol
carjol

@DeweySayenoff @carjol 

in that case the spanish and portuguese popes would count as being the first western popes - not this one.

Heteroric
Heteroric

Who cares, he will just advocate for mre illiterate latino lawbreakers.

dtucker
dtucker

Interesting that the author focuses on him being the first "Western Hemisphere" pope, which he is not (see Adrian IV, born in Abbots Langley England, west of the Prime Meridian) and totally ignores that he truly is the first "Southern Hemisphere" pope.  Since about 1/3rd of all Catholics live in the south, and that number is growing faster than any other region (by far), you'd think that the idea that he's from the south would be significant to a reporter.

ZitoEllas
ZitoEllas like.author.displayName 1 Like

I salute the new Pope and the longevity of the Roman Catholic Church, but every one of the vicissitudes of history that were listed, from the Huns to the Soviets, have also been weathered by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople - and still continue to be weathered.

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster!!  The Pope-a-Dope ends in a puff of smoke!