New pope faces challenging times

The Catholic Church on Wednesday elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned Feb. 28 due to deteriorating physical strength.

The 76-year-old cardinal was chosen as the new pope on the fifth ballot. It is hoped that Pope Francis will succeed in reforming a church whose reputation has been damaged by a series of scandals, including the sexual abuse of children by priests and accusations of money laundering by the Vatican Bank.

Francis is the first pope from Latin America, where there are some 480 million Catholics — some 40 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholic worldwide. Given the concentration of Catholics in the region, his selection comes as no surprise. He is said to have been the runnerup in the last conclave in 2005.

Following 450 years of Italian popes, John Paul II of Poland became pope in 1978. He was followed by Germany’s Benedict XVI. It is likely that a non-European may be elected in the not-too-distant future because the population of Catholic believers is increasing fast in Latin America, Africa and Asia at a time when the number of Catholics in Europe is declining. The last non-European pope was Gregory III (from 731 to 741) of Syria.

In addition to being the first pope to hail from the New World, Francis is also the first Jesuit. It was Jesuits like Francisco Xavier who introduced Christianity to 16th-century Japan, and in 1913 Jesuits founded Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Ideologically, the new pope is regarded as a conservative, strongly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. He severely criticized the Argentine government for legalizing same-sex marriage. But in some respects he is also a reformer.

He reportedly scolded Catholic priests who refused to baptize babies born to unmarried women. In Buenos Aries he lived in a simple apartment and commuted by bus, and was actively involved in social outreach to help the poor. According to the Vatican, he chose the name Francis — an unprecedented choice — in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was a humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor and the sick and is regarded as a great reformer of the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.

U.S. President Barack Obama said of the new pope, “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God.”

It is hoped that Pope Francis will be successful in restoring and strengthening trust in the Catholic Church by squarely addressing the problems plaguing the church as well helping to find solutions to the spiritual, ethical and social issues facing the world.