The new leader of the
world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics joked Wednesday that his fellow cardinals went "to the end of the earth" to find a bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis I, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, hails not from the end of the earth but from the New World -- the first pope in more than 1,000 years who doesn't hail from Europe, but instead from Latin America, where the world's largest share of Catholics lives and the church is vibrant and growing force. In choosing him, the College of Cardinals may have been sending a signal that the leadership of the church has shifted away from its traditional center toward a new focus in the 21st Century.
The 76-year-old pontiff broke with tradition in choosing his name, opting to honor St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint devoted to the poor -- a powerful act of symbolism that also may signal the new leader's interest in social justice in a secular, materialistic world.
He manifested a sense of humility during his first appearance before the world on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, asking the throng to join him in a moment of prayer before imparting his papal blessing. He also asked for prayers for his retired predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, whose abrupt resignation led to the new pope's election after five rounds of balloting.
Born to middle-class Italian immigrants, the new pope was archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he chose to live modestly, shunning the traditional trappings of a prince of the church. He rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums of Argentina's capital. He focused on social outreach, to the point of accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.
Pope Francis I faces enormous challenges as he assumes the leadership of the Catholic Church, but one of the most important aspects of the papacy is its pastoral role. Based on first impressions of the man clad in white who urged his followers to pray for him and chose as his patron a man who devoted himself to tending to those most in need, the new pope from "the end of the earth" has made a good start.