Pope Francis yesterday embarked on a groundbreaking papacy as the first Latin American leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and a church in turmoil.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the humble 76-year-old son of a railwayman, started his first full day as pontiff with private prayers at a Rome basilica.
The election of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who had not been considered a favorite in the run-up to this week’s secret conclave, met with widespread surprise and expressions of hope for a groundswell of change for a church dogged by scandal and internal conflict.
It was also seen as recognition of the church’s rapid growth in Latin America, which is now home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, in contrast to its decline in Europe.
“The choice of Bergoglio shows that the church is determined not to remain in mourning for the crisis in Europe, but has opened its doors to the revitalizing energy of Catholicism’s biggest continent,” Vatican expert Luigi Accatoli said. “It is a momentous step.”
The Italian daily La Repubblica, under the headline “Revolution at St Peter’s,” said the election of the former Jesuit priest represented a “geographic and cultural upheaval” for the Vatican.
Reactions continued to pour in from world leaders, with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard saying: “The election of a pope from the ‘new world’ is an occasion of genuinely historic proportions.”
The new pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order, emerged smiling onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday to cries of “Long live the pope” from tens of thousands of pilgrims massed in the famous piazza below. The first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years devoted his first prayer to his predecessor Benedict XVI and called for “fraternity” among Catholics.
“It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth [to find a pope],” Francis said, referring to his native Argentina, which erupted in celebrations at his appointment.
“Now, we take up this journey ... A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us,” he said.
Presenting an image as a simple man of the people, he chose to name himself after the ascetic St Francis of Assisi.
The World Communion of Reformed Churches, Protestants whose Christian forebears broke with Rome 500 years ago, wrote to Francis saying: “We are touched by your humility ... The name you have chosen is a sign for us that attention to the plight of the poor and justice for all people will be important for you.”
However, Bergoglio, hailed by US President Barack Obama as “a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us,” is not without controversy.
He was criticized along with other Catholic clergy for failing to stand up to Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983, during which 30,000 people died or disappeared.
More recently, his opposition to gay marriage and the distribution of contraceptives has brought him into conflict with the Argentine government.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez on Wednesday wished her compatriot “a fruitful pastoral mission.”
The Argentine of Italian descent became the 266th pope after Benedict stunned the world last month with his decision to resign, the first to voluntarily step down in 700 years.
Benedict’s eight-year reign was riven by scandals and the new pope will face immediate challenges — chiefly stamping his authority on the Vatican machinery and trying to coax back a Catholic flock that is deserting churches across the West.
Francis must tackle crises caused by child abuse by priests and the leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the church.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who has accused the Vatican of hampering an inquiry into child sex abuse by Irish priests, summed up the thoughts of many: “We pray that he will have the strength, the good health and the spiritual guidance needed to lead the Catholic Church in the many challenges it faces.”
Francis also faces challenges from outside his church, with the growth of Islam a particular concern in Africa and Asia, and the advance of secularism in its European heartland and beyond.
In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, some were mindful of criticism of Islam by previous popes. Slamet Effendy Yusuf, head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, said that most Muslims live in developing countries.
“We think that the new pope will better understand why in Islam there tends to be an attitude of negativity towards the West, because he is from a developing country himself,” he said.
“I hope the new pope will ... engage more in dialogue and not confrontation. We believe this is a new chapter in the history of relations between Muslims and Catholics,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped Francis would continue to promote inter-faith talks.