Nearly an hour after white smoke began billowing out of the Sistine Chapel chimney on Wednesday afternoon, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., formally introduced himself to the world as Pope Francis.
The choice of Francis, who previously served as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was a surprise to the many faithful observers and oddsmakers watching the conclave, as his papacy represents a number of firsts for the Roman Catholic Church: He is the first pontiff from Latin America, the first to take an entirely new name since Pope Lando in 913 and the first from the Society of Jesus.
“I think a lot of us are just surprised. We have a Jesuit pope. I don’t think anyone was expecting that to happen.” Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ’88), vice president for mission and ministry at Georgetown, said.
At Georgetown, the Healy Hall bells rang out as the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States celebrated the elevation of a Jesuit pope. Many students joined in, some even running from Healy Circle to Wolfington Hall with Vatican flags. The Office of the Vice President for Mission and Ministry quickly organized a Mass of thanksgiving in Dahlgren Chapel later that evening.
Kieran Raval (COL ’13), former grand knight of the Georgetown University Council of the Knights of Columbus, said that he was thrilled to hear about Francis’s elevation.
“I think my first reaction was really just joy,” Raval said. “I think there’s a very palpable sense of unity in the Church when over a billion people worldwide are coming together in a spirit of prayer and celebration, with the added twist that it’s our first Jesuit pope and we’re at the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university. That made it particularly special.”
O’Brien, who gave the homily at Wednesday’s Mass, believes that Francis’s experience as a Jesuit will influence his papacy.
“Francis spent many decades of his life as a Jesuit, and that will no doubt inform how he is as a pope — his style [and] maybe his priorities,” he said. “The Jesuit spirituality is very earthy, very grounded in the belief that we can find God in all things — that we should meet people where they’re at. … I think he’ll bring that type of spirituality with him to his office.”
History professor Fr. David Collins, S.J. emphasized the importance of Francis’ experience training other Jesuits in his role as a novice master, a position which required him to foster the newest members of the Society of Jesus.
“There’s a lot of Jesuit training that will be imported into the way that he operates,” Collins said. “There’s a certain pragmatic, let’s-get-it-done attitude the Jesuits have.”
Collins said that he believes Francis will bring this mentality to the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, which many — such as Roman Catholic expert George Weigel — consider poorly managed. Nevertheless, Collins was quick to point out that Francis’s Jesuit background is one of many important qualities that will influence his papacy.
Some say that the pope’s humility will be a defining characteristic for the new pope.
“He’s a man interested in a kind of noble simplicity,” Raval said. “He seems likely to bring the Vatican back into focus on the basics of the faith: preaching the truth — the whole truth — with faith and love, administering the sacraments, caring for the impoverished and being an evangelical force as well.”
“He’s a man of great poverty and humility. I think that’s what made the selection of his name so important,” O’Brien said. “I think he’ll bring his commitment to poverty and to social justice to the papacy.”
Raval added that the pope’s choice to take the name Francis — which was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, a priest devoted to serving the poor and founder of the Franciscans — reinforced the idea of the new pontiff’s commitment to social justice.
That Francis is the first pontiff from the Americas, however, is considered by many to be the most remarkable aspect of the Catholic Church’s new leader.
“I think that [the fact that] he’s from Latin America is the huger, bigger deal,” Collins said. “Europe and the Mediterranean world — that’s where Christianity began — and this is the first time that it’s leapt out of that world.”
For Sam Dulik (SFS ’13), vice president of public affairs for the Latin American Student Association, the pope’s election was an exciting revelation.
“We’re so phenomenally proud, just buoyant,” Dulik said. “This [Latin America] is where the growth is. I think this is a huge sign from the College of Cardinals that this is an area they want to invest in.”
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., a government professor who specializes in Latin America, stressed that the election of Francis is an important step for the Church.
“This clearly reflects where the concentration of Catholics really are,” Carnes said. “There are more than twice as many in Latin America than in Europe. So really, where is the center of Catholicism? It’s in the global south.”
Carnes believes that socioeconomic conditions in Latin America have shaped the Catholic Church’s attention to social justice and that this experience has led the Latin American Church to be more humble and place an increased focus on serving the poor.
According to history professor Erik Langer, director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Pope Francis has earned a reputation for being at odds with the Argentine government.
“One thing to understand is that the Church hierarchy in Argentina is very conservative. It’s probably one of the most conservative — if not the most conservative — in Latin America,” Langer said. “And although the pope is seen as moderate within that hierarchy, that still makes him somewhat conservative. He has, in the past, criticized very heavily Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the president of Argentina. He is seen as someone who is not very friendly to the president or to any of the populist, new left leaders in Latin America.”
Francis must now address the many challenges facing the Vatican. Externally, the Church must confront declining faith among European Catholics — Europe was the only region in the world to see a decrease in the number of Catholics between 1990 and 2010, according to figures from the Vatican — and the global rise of Islam, which had an increase of over a million European followers since 2001, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
In addition, the new pontiff must face the Church’s ongoing sexual abuse scandal, which intensified during the papacy of Benedict XVI when many Catholics, especially in Europe, stepped forward with abuse claims.
Internally, the Church is divided within its administration on issues such as management of the Vatican Bank and meeting international standards of anti-money laundering laws, which was revealed in secret documents recently leaked to the Italian media.
According to Carnes, the pope needs to be able to exert his influence to make real changes.
“People get very used to the idea that ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ and I’m sure he had to overcome that already three or four times today,” Carnes said. “My hope is that he’ll keep doing that in every respect. Then, that really is a witness for the rest of us. We can break down our own fears of what would happen. I’m hopeful he can break down the structures and invite us to a different kind of living Church.”