‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus Papam’
More than one report on the 2005 papal conclave had named Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the runner-up candidate and real rival to Pope Benedict. Only eight years ago. Why then should we be surprised that this 76-year-old, humble theologian emerged last night as Latin America’s first pope, the church’s 266th, Pope Francis? Perhaps because of the profound opaqueness of Vatican politics and particularly of its succession race. We see its operations only through a glass darkly. Perhaps too because form suggested that Europe, with its 60 cardinals out of 115 electors, and particularly Italy, would again claim Peter’s rod as its own by right.
With a nice touch of humour he acknowledged as much. Speaking Italian with a slight Latin American accent, Francis joked with the crowd before delivering his blessing last night, saying: “As you know the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world.”
Yet,today Latin America is home to 42 per cent of the world's Catholics, and the church has said with one voice, and with rapidity that suggests a broad consensus – although the previous four popes were also all elected within two or three days – that it hears their call.
The man they have chosen is no radical, a theologically orthodox teacher on issues like abortion and homosexuality, but has demonstrated a social conscience that, even if not in tune with the continent’s adherents to liberation theology, echoes its concerns. He is very much of the continent and its people’s preoccupations. He has been fearless in recent years in confronting the Argentinian establishment and wealthy although some controversy surrounds his time during the years of the military junta. But this is a man of the people from a middle class family who has lived as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in a small flat instead of a palace, prefers public transport, and is reported even to cook his own food.
The first pope to come from the ranks of the notoriously independent Society of Jesus, Francis has a reputation as a moderate and conciliator. His biographer Francesca Ambrogetti says that “he shares the view that the church should have a missionary role, that gets out to meet people, that is active.... a church that does not so much regulate the faith as promote and facilitate it.”
But he will be no political naif in the corridors of the Vatican which he knows well. As cardinal, Bergoglio was appointed to several administrative positions in the Roman Curia. He served on the Congregation of Clergy, Congregation of Divine Worship and Sacraments, Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Congregation of Societies of Apostolic Life. And became a member of the Commission on Latin American and the Family Council.
He now leads a troubled church of 1.2 billion adherents, beset by scandal, seen by many, their faith tested, as out of touch and conservative, which needs a helmsman of huge vision and courage. Pope John XXII confronted the troubles of his day by convening the Second Vatican Council “to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air.” Last night the Roman Catholic Church opened a new wide window.