The election of Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as pope by the cardinals of the Catholic Church on Wednesday was marked by a number of firsts. He is the first pontiff from the Americas. He is the first Jesuit pope. The most significant first, however, is the selection of his name. Pope Francis immediately brings to mind Francis of Assisi, a 13-century Italian preacher who dedicated himself to the poor and is among the most beloved of saints.
Until Wednesday, the former Cardinal Bergoglio may have been best known for a speech a year ago in which he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes. His concern for the poor, along with his humility and disdain for the trappings of authority, have long distinguished him and were surely instrumental in his election. He is certainly likely to fulfill one of the Church's first responsibilities, that of aiding and giving comfort to the poor and downtrodden.
Even as a cardinal, he was known for taking the bus around Buenos Aires to visit the slums of the sprawling city. The son of Italian immigrants, Pope Francis comes from a rapidly growing Catholic region, as Latin America has emerged as one of the Church's strengths just as Europe has becomes more secularized.
Pope Francis' record of social outreach alone, however, doesn't suggest he is poised to take on the huge challenges the church faces. At 76, he is the second cardinal in a row to be chosen pope at an age when most people are well into their retirement years. While his opposition three years ago to a gay marriage bill in Argentina was predictable, it was not a bill that threatened the church, and has not since becoming law. Under his leadership as cardinal, Argentina's bishops issued an overdue collective apology last year for the Catholic Church's failure to challenge Argentina's murderous 1976-1983 dictatorship, but while that was admirable, Cardinal Bergoglio blamed the ruling right and the rebellious left equally for human rights violations that were almost entirely the work of the dictatorship. That caution suggests he will not be the leader to fully confront the sexual abuse scandal that has soiled the church and prompted U.S. bishops to demand a "no tolerance" policy from the Vatican for both abusive priests and the members of the church hierarchy who protect them.
Popes can surprise, of course, and have more than once. What seems certain is that Pope Francis has the credentials and desire to live up to his name, and if he succeeds, as pope he will accomplish a great deal for the church and the poor who require the church's help and support.