Cardinals elect first pope from the Americas

Early indications suggest a pontiff who will be open and assessable but hold to conservative positions

Newly elected Pope Francis  conducts a blessing as he appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photograph:
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Newly elected Pope Francis conducts a blessing as he appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

 

It has happened. People around here have been talking about it for years and years but it has finally happened.

The cardinals of the Catholic Church have chosen a non-European Pope, someone whose Latin American origins, blend of doctrinal orthodoxy and concern for the poor would suggest that things might change around here, although perhaps not as much nor as fast as some might want.

When the name of 76-year-old Argentine Jesuit Jorge Maria Bergoglio was proclaimed to the 100,000-strong crowd in St Peter’s Square last night, there was a gasp, with many not understanding who had been elected.

When the man himself soon appeared, he did so with a humility that struck a very different note.

Given his track record as a defender of the poor, he may prove to be the Catholic Church’s version of Barack Obama, in that he could well generate unrealisable hopes and expectations about the future of the Catholic Church.


Joy
In St Peter’s Square last night, there were literally people jumping for joy.

Those who would like to think that he is going to change the church’s position on a whole range of issues, including Catholic teaching on homosexuality, contraception and clerical celibacy, may, however, be disappointed.

The new pope’s immediate schedule makes the point. At a briefing last night, senior Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi, himself a Jesuit like the new pope, said that Pope Francis ’s first public outing would be to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore this morning where he will pray to the Madonna. That hardly sounds like a radical change.

However, the fact that on Saturday he intends to hold a meeting with the media in the Paul VI Hall sends a very different message, one of openness from an organisation which, frankly, has often treated the secular media with total distrust.


Pride
Many Argentines, from ex-footballer Diego Armando Maradona to Ricardo Alfonsin, son of former Argentinian president Raul Alfonsin, last night expressed an immediate sense of understandable national pride at the election of Pope Francis. Even US president Barack Obama was much enthused, calling him a symbol for the “poor and the vulnerable”.

To some extent, all that was inevitable. What was much less expected was that the al-Azhar Sunnite university in Cairo should react positively, with sources saying that perhaps the time of the “cold war” between Catholicism and Islam, in the wake of Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg speech, may now come to an end.

For the first time ever, too, Pope Francis got to telephone his predecessor, exchanging a few words with Benedict, Roman pontiff emeritus, last night. In the coming days, too, he intends to meet his predecessor. All very different, if not to say unprecedented.

Summing up the conclave’s choice last night, Fr Lombardi called it a “surprise” and a choice which demonstrated “the cardinals’ willingness to broaden their vision”.

He also called the new pope someone who represents a continuity with Pope Benedict. As of now, that remains to be seen.