When someone ascends to the position of pope, he takes on the important responsibility of leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The pope also steps into a position as a leader on the world stage.
Consider recent history. The course of the Cold War was shaped in no small part by the visionary leadership of Pope John Paul II, who stood up for the cause of freedom and justice and helped build the remarkable momentum that ultimately liberated Eastern Europe from communism.
In short, the entire world pays attention to the decisions and statements of the Catholic Church’s leader.
So it will be with Pope Francis I — the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina — selected this week at age 76 as the Bishop of Rome and spiritual guide of the global community of Roman Catholics.
One of Christianity’s most remarkable aspects over the millennia has been an ability to plant strong roots around the globe in such a wide variety of cultures. It is striking and encouraging, then, that the selection of Francis I has opened the papacy to its first pope from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than 1,000 years.
In recent decades, Christianity has seen tremendous growth in the global “South” — above all, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. The selection of Francis I, then, will stand as a sign of the Catholic Church’s growing connections that link Catholicism’s longtime center of gravity, Europe and the United States, with its new areas of growth in the developing and middle-income countries in that part of the world.
The new pope himself nodded to that geographic significance. “The purpose of the conclave was to appoint the bishop of Rome,” he told the tens of thousands gathered to see his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. “But it seems my brothers the cardinals went all the way to the end of the world.”
It is notable, too, that Catholicism’s new leader, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1958 and was ordained into the priesthood in 1969, chose the name “Francis,” with its immediate connotations of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic friar associated among other things with an attitude of humility. In his former life as cardinal, Francis I (then Cardinal Bergoglio) was known and respected for his humility, living in a small apartment, often riding the bus to work, cooking his own meals and regularly visiting the slums around Argentina’s capital.
This week, Francis I has stepped from that small apartment into the Vatican, the center of decision-making for his global community.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can join in wishing him well as he takes on his important duties.