by GAVIN ABRAHAM

At 5.16 this morning, I got the first message from a friend in New Zealand that white smoke had billowed from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. That first message was followed by a couple more, so I jumped out of bed to be firmly plonked in front of the TV to see who would emerge onto the balcony above St Peter’s Square.

As you no doubt know by now, that man is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who will now forever be known as Pope Francis.

Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr has an in-depth profile of the new Pope, and I don’t think I need to try to rehash a biography when John has done such a great job. Read his story here, but I’ll offer a few thoughts on what I think of the pick — for what it’s worth.

This is an amazing moment for the Church, moving to the developing world and what has become the centre of the Catholic world in a population sense in recent decades. For the first time in 1800 years*, a non-European man has been chosen to lead the Church, and there would seem to be no better time in the history of the Church for that to have happened.

Many people had been agitating for there to be a Latin American, African or Asian pope to acknowledge that changing demographic of the Church, and they will be pleased with today’s announcement. But many of those same people were holding hopes that a new pope from one of those regions would bring a “reformist” attitude to the Church in terms of doctrine, and they may well be disappointed in that respect.

John Allen, speaking on CNN, said that Pope Francis will bring some reformist credentials to the table in important areas — he’s been strong on financial accountability and on sexual abuse, though the latter hasn’t gripped the Church in South America (yet) in the way it has most countries in the West. Those are going to be two areas, along with the Church’s internal governance courtesy of the Curia, that are in serious need of reform, and his Italian roots, and the fact he was chosen reasonably early in the voting process, are encouraging signs in that endeavour.

Because so many cardinals spoke of the need for accountability and transparency and progress in those areas, for two-thirds of the candidates to have rallied around Cardinal Bergoglio in little over 24 hours should tell us a lot.

And what an introduction to most of the world. He came across as a very humble, generous and warm individual, with a look of — as one of the TV commentators said — joy and a bit of fear. Because of his age, he had the look of a benevolent grandfather, possibly in the same way Pope John XXIII did when he was announced as pope more than 50 years ago (long before my time). With respect to the great man, Pope Benedict looked quite uncomfortable when he was on the balcony almost eight years ago.

Pope Francis looked serene and pensive, but the joy on his face as he soaked up the atmosphere in St Peter’s Square was infectious. And he humbly asked the people to pray for him — you could hear a pin drop while people did — before he offered his first papal blessing.

And what about the name? Francis has been chosen for the first time, reportedly because of St Francis of Assisi, one of the most famous saints in the history of the Church. There was a theory that such a name might never be used because of Francis’s almost rock star status in the Church, but a man who renounced almost everything he had in order to follow God some eight centuries ago has seemingly been a source of inspiration to the pope who now bears his name.

Cardinal Bergoglio reportedly lives in a humble dwelling — certainly by cardinal standards — and rides the bus to work, apparently even making his own meals, another rarity. Humility is a quality that people find very attractive, so I think that’s another great positive from this selection.

And a Jesuit. In another first, Pope Francis becomes the first Jesuit in almost 500 years of the order’s existence to be elected pope. Jesuits, as religious priests, take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a fourth vow of obedience to the Pope. They’ll feel an ever more concrete bond and allegiance to this pope, that’s for sure.

Diaries that were controversially leaked after the last conclave suggested that Cardinal Bergoglio was second in the running to Pope Benedict in 2005, and no one seems to have gone out of their way to refute those claims.

While there is a great deal of secrecy around papal votes, I think it’s fair to say that it’s unusual, except in the case of short pontificates, for men to be at or near the top of the ballot in successive elections. He was considered a likely candidate in 2005, but most of the South American interest seemed to be congregating around Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo, Brazil. This once again showed that the idea of trying to predict who might become pope is a pretty fruitless exercise.

As head of the Church in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio not surprisingly butted heads with the government on various fronts, including on sanctity of life issues, and also around the idea of marriage being between one man and one woman. A conservative Catholic newspaper in the US has already stated clearly that the new pope is strongly orthodox on social issues, which should surprise no one — but will surprise many who don’t quite understand the Church.

Just a quick comment on Pope Francis’s age; he’s 76. I must say, I was expecting the cardinals to look to someone a bit younger, someone in their 60s, who would have a better chance of spending 10-15 or even 20 years to deal with the various challenges currently facing the Church, but Pope Francis looked fit and healthy and vibrant for a man of his age. I think it was probably Cardinal Bergoglio’s age that led to his prominence in the list of papal frontrunners being diminished this time around.

Wow. What an exciting day. I’ll write a lot more in the coming days, and over the course of Pope Francis’s pontificate, but I’ll leave things there for now. I’m thrilled to see the Church look outside Europe, and if World Youth Day in Rio wasn’t already going to be massive, look out Brazil. Argentinians will flock in their tens (or hundreds) of thousands to join pilgrims from all over the world to share in what will be one of the Pope’s first international trips, and possibly his first trip back to South America as head of the Church.

Did I say “Wow” already? Wow.

Some say Peter was the last non-European Pope, but there were certainly popes with African roots in the first centuries of the Church, including Pope Victor I

Gavin Abraham, a former editor of NZ Catholic, is media manager of Catholic Health Australia.

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