Pope of the Americas

Francis, the first Pontiff from the New World, has a lot of old problems to deal with

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Luca Bruno / AP

Pope Francis bows to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 13, 2013.

Habemus Papam Franciscum came the tweet, the first official word from the @Pontifex account, after the white smoke curled from the copper chimney watched by hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square, by millions and millions on every imaginable 21st century technology around the world. And there it was, old and new, past and present, the arrival of a Pope who for the first time hails from “the most unequal part of the world,” as he once called Latin America, who cooked his own dinners and rode the bus and took his regnal name from the sainted champion of the least among us. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, brings to the throne of St. Peter a concern about the “spiritual sickness” that can afflict a church if it seems to care more for its priests than its people. “I want you to bless me,” he told the crowd, before it was his turn to bless them. He noted that his brother Cardinals had gone “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. And by the time his brief debut was over, it was already clear that a profound change had occurred in an institution famously resistant to it.

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 trials 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 and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great powers.

Time Magazine Cover, Mar. 23, 2012

Stefano Dal Pozzolo / Contrasto / Redux

(PHOTOS: Pope and Circumstance: the Road to the Papacy)

Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must 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 in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith. Unlike some of the cataclysmic challenges in the church’s past, these problems are internal—but as such, they are more difficult to resolve.

And then there is the unprecedented presence of his old conclave rival, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI—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, fighting Napoleon and the Turks may well have been easier.

Bergoglio almost made history eight years ago, when he was rumored to have been the only real challenger in the several rounds of balloting that led to the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI. That itself was history: Ratzinger became the second consecutive non-Italian to head the Roman Catholic Church. Now Bergoglio too has made history, as the first Pope from Latin America. Yet as the son of Italian immigrants, he has also brought the papacy back home to the land of his ancestry. Full circle, yes, but with a great many detours.

Outside the papal conclave, the handicappers had some obvious favorites and inevitable dark horses. Bergoglio was neither. Among the natural heirs were the Cardinal of Milan, who seemed to have been promoted quickly through important offices by Benedict XVI, and the Cardinal of São Paulo, a favorite among the bureaucrats of the Roman 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. Almost everyone had overlooked Bergoglio, 76, believing he was too far along in years and that his moment had passed. He was also a Jesuit, and no Jesuit had ever been Pope before.

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

But the fact that he held his own in balloting in 2005 against the formidable Ratzinger indicates that Bergoglio has always had the respect of the Cardinals. And though he has not worked in Rome, he has had enough dealings with the secretive and sclerotic Curia to be able to work with it. In that way, he is both an outsider and an insider.

His background is one of accomplishment and humility amid adversity and controversy. His father was a railway worker from Torino who moved to Buenos Aires, where the future Pope was born in 1936. Bergoglio lost a lung to an infection as a teenager, and as he headed toward college, he chose the priesthood over a career in chemistry. He weathered the difficult and dangerous 1970s, when Argentina was ruled by the military, by keeping close to religious life and philosophy and away from the activism that got many fellow clerics into fatal trouble—a quietism that did not sit well with other priests once the junta was gone. Nevertheless, he moved up in the hierarchy of the church, becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. Three years later, John Paul II made him a Cardinal.

(VIDEO: Pope Francis and the Challenges Ahead)

The personality of any Pope and his biography will be paramount in judging what to expect from his rule. Yet there is also much to learn about how the new Pope will administer his kingdom from what transpired in the Sistine Chapel among the Cardinal electors charged with discerning God’s will for the leadership of the church. As the absolute ruler of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis can do as he pleases. But the politics of the conclave that elected him provides a few clues about how he will move forward in his papacy.

Two large, if amorphous, factions appeared to be circling each other in the run-up to the election. One was composed of adherents of the Curia, keen to preserve the power and privileges of their offices—some of which have been around for centuries. The other faction included those who have had to contend with the church’s real-world crises—Cardinals from the U.S. and their allies who have been chastened, for example, by more than a decade of the abuse scandal. The Curia—in spirit Italian, if not entirely in fact—appeared to be pressing the candidacy of Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, whose New World origins would make an exciting, historic splash. The non-Curia faction seemed, paradoxically, to be promoting Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, who while not a Curia favorite, is Italian and knows how to maneuver through local politics. Bergoglio, who has Curia credentials but who also has had to deal with the powers that be of the secular world, may have ended up as the perfect compromise candidate.

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Like Scola, he has links to a somewhat controversial Italian movement called Comunione e Liberazione, which pursues activism though conservative religious engagement with the secular world. Like Scherer, who has had to work with leftist secular governments in Brazil, he has had years of experience butting heads with less-than-friendly civilian rulers. Though Roman Catholicism remains Argentina’s official religion and abortion remains illegal, Bergoglio, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has clashed with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who helped legalize gay marriage in 2010. She once joked that it was a shame that women couldn’t be Pope because she would run against him for the position. Meanwhile, his homilies indicate that he is opposed to her changing the country’s constitution to seek a third term in office.

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Bergoglio will not stray from the conservative doctrines of the rest of the Vatican. But unlike some of the other often opaquely eloquent Cardinals, he brings a prosaic and experiential perspective to administering the church. “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church,” Bergoglio told La Stampa, talking about evangelism. “It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old … I have no doubts about preferring the former.” His lifestyle is spartan compared with that of other princes of the church. He does not live in a Cardinal’s palace, and in Buenos Aires, he takes the bus to work. On March 13, as crowds gathered in the Argentine capital to celebrate, one young priest in the crowd said, “He’s the Vicar of Christ, but I used to see him riding with us on the subway.”

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He will deliver much-needed oxygen to parts of the Catholic empire. Just before the conclave convened, he celebrated his 55th year as a member of the Society of Jesus—popularly called the 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 name is also 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 evangelist to Asia, Francis Xavier. In Mexico City, stunned Jesuits simply murmured “the Argentine” at the news, with one older priest saying, “Our first Pope—let us pray for him and for our church.”

More important is the great burst of energy that may sweep into Latin America. Mexico and Brazil have the largest Catholic populations in the world. Colombia is not far behind. The church has grown vastly more Latino over the past hundred years. But the Catholic Church has also enjoyed a 500-year monopoly on the region. Latin America, unlike Europe, never had a Protestant Reformation. Now that is changing, and 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 worshippers to evangelical congregations. According to Latinobarómetro, in 1996, Latin American countries were 81% Catholic and only 4% evangelical. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70%, and evangelicals had risen to 13%. Brazil could once boast of 99% adherence to Rome. Today, Catholics number 65% to an evangelical surge of 22%.

(VIDEO: How Pope Francis Was Elected)

The Pentecostals clearly have fervor. Their evangelical, charismatic spirit is dynamic, loud and vibrant. In São Paulo, a Pentecostal church is building a $200 million, 10,000-seat megachurch that replicates Solomon’s temple, with rocks imported from Israel so locals will feel closer to the Holy Land. Even self-acclaimed Catholics across the entire region are identifying not just as Catholic but also as born-again. Latino converts overwhelmingly say they want to know God personally, and they want to do so in their own cultural context.

For a church that has had few defenses against this uprising, it is impossible to understate Bergoglio’s significance. The only real effort until now has been the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, an attempt to bring charismatics into the Roman fold, and that tends to be led mostly by laypeople. Now the Vatican is pulling the heartstrings of the Latino church from the top down. The Cardinals did not forget that the Latino faithful viewed John Paul II as a member of their own families. “Latin Americans always love the Pope,” says Notre Dame theology professor Timothy Matovina. “This is going to add another level of cariño—a deep love, affection, connection that they have for him.”

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In the end, the question of fealty remains key to the church. As enormous as the Catholic world is, the Vatican knows it deals with a fractious faithful—many of whom find Rome and the Holy See more and more distant from their everyday lives. The long-simmering priestly sex-abuse scandal and the unplumbed depths of the Vatican’s finances seem only to turn off more Catholics by the day. To many of them, the opulent wonder of St. Peter’s and the mysteries of the conclave may be fascinating, but in the end, all of it may be filigree, a hierarchy with gorgeous clothes but no spirit.

On the Sunday before the conclave began, the Gospel reading in Catholic churches around the world happened to be the parable of the prodigal son, the tale of a spoiled heir who takes his inheritance and wastes it—only to be forgiven by his father and taken back in. In Rome, Cardinals used it to talk about bringing back Catholics who had left the church. Perhaps Francis, through his experience of living on the streets, may read that lesson differently. For the church itself has been prodigal, and now may be the time for it to find its way back to its people.

reported by Stephan Faris and Alessandro Speciale / Rome, Elizabeth Dias / Washington, Uki Goñi/Buenos Aires, Dolly Mascareñas / Mexico City and Sorcha Pollak / London
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