Published March 15. 2013 4:00AM
The selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as earthly leader of the Roman Catholic Church was historic on several counts. He is the first pope to come from the Americas. He is the first Jesuit priest to become a pope, an order known more for traditions of service, missionary work and education than navigating church hierarchy.
And the pontiff will be the first called Pope Francis. Most church observers, noting the humility that then-Cardinal Bergoglio showed as the Catholic leader of Buenos Aires - passing on the church's palatial estate to live in an apartment, using public transportation rather than a chauffeur, cooking his own meals, advocating for the poor - saw it as a nod to St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century friar who founded the Franciscans. Born into a wealthy family, St. Francis abandoned that comfort for a life of poverty and serving the poor. But the choice could also acknowledge St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, whose missionary work spread the faith through Africa and Asia in the 16th century.
In any event, the name has meaning. If his style in Argentina is an indication, the world can expect a pope who will speak out against the abuses of globalization and the callousness of free markets, which drive creation of wealth and innovation, but also exploit the poorest workers for cheap labor and accumulate riches among the few.
The selection appears to be recognition by the College of Cardinals that the nexus of this global institution is no longer Europe, where the church is seen as irrelevant by an increasingly secular society. Four out of every 10 Catholics live in Latin America. Latinos are also a growing segment in the United States Catholic Church, where one-quarter of the populace identifies themselves as Catholic, one-third of them of Latin heritage.
But while the selection was historic, it is impossible to predict if Pope Francis' papacy will be.
The last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (who made his own history by retiring), appointed cardinals in line with their conservative theological thinking, including, by most accounts, Cardinal Bergoglio. Therefore, the church's ban on the ordination of women, on the use of birth control, its priestly celibacy requirement, and opposition to same-sex unions are not likely to change.
While not as dramatic as in Europe, the divide between the cultural expectation of many American Catholics and the teaching of their church leaders is contributing to a decline in adherents. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found a majority of Catholics want the bans on priests marrying and women becoming priests ended, while polls consistently show the laity in overwhelming disagreement with the church's teaching on contraception.
The number of priests is shrinking in North America, the average age of those serving rising.
Also damaging was the scandalous manner in which church leadership handled the sexual abuse issue, protecting offending priests and ignoring victims, often transferring pedophiles to new parishes where they found new prey. While reforms have vastly improved the situation, the legacy continues to play out in the payment of large settlements and startling revelations.
According to the Center for Applied Research in Apostolate at Georgetown University, the share of Connecticut residents identifying as Catholics dropped from 50 percent to 38 percent from 1990 to 2008.
How Pope Francis handles the many challenges facing his church will determine whether his papacy is consequential. Can his policies win back the trust of those whose faith was rocked by scandal? Will he provide a greater role for women in the life and leadership of the church? Will he reform or be stifled by the Roman Curia, the byzantine bureaucracy that runs the church from within the Vatican? Will his be an effective voice for economic fairness?
At age 76, he will not have much time.
Catholics appear eager to embrace their new pope. His humble gesture of asking for the blessings and prayers of the people before he blessed them struck an emotional chord. He will need those prayers.