University of Dayton student Katie Baglieri had been standing in St. Peter’s Square for about 90 minutes Wednesday when the smoke began to pour from the chimney, indicating a new pope had been elected.
“The energy of the crowd was insane,” Baglieri said. “It is difficult to put into words how awesome it was to hear the crowd chant “Viva il Papa” and “Papa Francesco” over and over again. Then, when he came out to speak the roar of the crowd was incredible.”
He, as the world now knows, is Pope Francis, the first pope to use that historically significant name, the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas. Across the region, just as across the world, Catholics are looking at Pope Francis’ background and life story – unique in so many ways compared to his 265 predecessors – for direction as to what his papacy will mean for the future of the Church.
Many say they believe he intends to reform the Church, which has been plagued by scandal, and will emphasize economic justice for the poor – a focus both of the Jesuits and Liberation Theology, which started in Latin American Catholic churches in the 1950s and 1960s.
The selection of the Argentina native has also thrilled Hispanics worldwide.
“It was a historic moment,” said Miguel Diaz, UD professor and the American Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 until November. “Undoubtedly, the church has made history in terms of expanding in to a more catholic, with a little ‘c,’ universal fold and embracing a new face in leadership.”
The new pope is a bit of an outsider, at least in Rome, where the Catholic bureaucracy is dominated by Italians. Dennis Schnurr, Archbishop of Cincinnati, said he has never met him. Neither has Diaz, who has books in his UD office that were signed by several of the other cardinals who had been considered leading contenders to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. Diaz said Francis, then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was not one of the “Roman regulars, in terms of the Roman Curia.”
A Pope from Latin America would bring a definite change of perception, particularly on issues like poverty, said Jana Bennett, an associate professor of moral theology at UD.
“This is where liberation theology comes from, where there’s a strong focus on the people and focusing on the poor,” Bennett said. “That was a radical move in its time and I think it continues to be radical today.”
Picking a Pope who is not from Europe also sends a message that this is a global religion, representing people everywhere, she said.
“I think that’s what this pick means, that this is a church of the people,” she said.
Joe Valenzano, an assistant professor of communications at UD, said it was a day full of symbolism, starting with the chimney smoke, but the new Pope embedded a lot of symbolism himself, starting with his choice of name.
“Francis was someone who reformed the church and the church’s attitudes. He was very much about the poor, very much about helping people, which is also a lot about what this cardinal was doing in Buenos Aires,” Valenzano said
“He was of the people. He rode the bus to work. He lived in a very Spartan apartment. So there’s a symbolic link between the name and his background. And it also indicates what he’s going to do with the papacy.”
But despite the many firsts of this new papacy, some other things will not change — at least not rapidly. Few, if any, believe that Francis will suddenly allow the ordination of women priests, support gay marriage, or or change the Church’s views on abortion.
“Theologically, he’s conservative,” said Sister Louise Akers, a nun who was banned from teaching by the Cincinnati Archdiocese after she refused to publicly renounce her support for the ordination of women. “He’s a traditionalist.”
The new pope will have plenty of reform options, considering the ongoing pedophilia scandal, disarray in the Curia and the financial problems at the Vatican Bank, Akers said. But she said the choice of Francis, so different in background than other popes, shows that the College of Cardinals knows that the church is in need of great change, she said.
“We can expect no sudden change,” Akers said. “For me, there is a lot of hope. It’s not going to happen overnight, and this is one step in the long history of the church.”
Some are calling for rapid change. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s National Religious Leadership Roundtable called on Francis to re-evaluate the Church’s approach to gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender issues, noting that, as cardinal, he “spoke strongly against marriage equality and against the right for gay and lesbian people to adopt children.”
All Out, another gay rights group, went further, as spokesman Andre Banks said that “by electing Jorge Bergoglio to be Pope, the Catholic Church has renewed their commitment to oppose equality for lesbian, gay bisexual and trans people.”
As cardinal, Bergoglio called gay marriage “a lie aimed at confusing and fooling the children of God” and “a destructive pretension against the plan of God,” according to All Out.
Daniel Frondorf, the leader of the Cincinnati branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that Pope Francis has an opportunity to bring justice to abuse victims.
“By dismissing from ministry those bishops and cardinals who have been credibly proven to be enablers of abusive priests, Francis will send a message that a new day has indeed dawned in the Vatican: accountability will be required from not only those who perpetrated the crimes, but from those who looked out for the interest of the church instead of that of the children,” Frondorf said, calling for a world-wide extension of reforms undertaken by many North American bishops, such as finger printing, background checks, and victims’ assistance programs.
Those who challenge the new pope for reform and change point to his new name, that of two important saints: St. Francis of Assisi, a reformer who focused on helping the poor, and St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits.
“When I heard the news that a Jesuit brother of mine would be the next Pope, I was completely stunned,” said Michael Graham, president of Xavier University. “That the Holy Spirit should choose a man from the tradition of Ignatius Loyola to lead the Church must be a deep consolation for anyone and everyone associated with any Jesuit ministry throughout the world.”
Peter Huff, who holds the Besl Family Chair in Ethics, Religion and Society at Xavier, said the Jesuits were “formed with a very independent spirit from the beginning,” leading to jealousy and distrust from older orders. Because of that, there for centuries the view that a Jesuit would never be named Pope.
“We seem to be entering a new chapter,” Huff said. “Jesuits are known for their social activism, their concern for the poor and their concern for building institutions, particularly educational institutions.”
Diaz said he hoped that the new pope would follow the example of Francis of Assisi, known for his humility and his willingness to challenge the abuse of power and privilege.
“If he follows the example of the name of the saint he’s chosen, I think we’re in for an interesting ride in the next few months and years,” Diaz said.