Three notable firsts
The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester (Mass.), wrote:
After just two days and five ballots, white smoke issued from a chimney at Vatican City early Wednesday evening, signaling the election of the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Within an hour, the Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- Pope Francis -- appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to greet a crowd of 100,000 faithful gathered for the historic moment.
For the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the election of a pope is an exciting and emotional time, one filled with ceremony, reverence and tradition, but still more with hope for the future, both of the Church and the world. For the Church aspires to be a truly universal and catholic institution, one that is open to all people, and whose work is carried out in every corner of the Earth.
This election is notable for three firsts.
For the first time in its 2,000-year history, the Church has reached beyond the confines of Europe and North Africa to find its leader, thus recognizing in the most visible way where its greatest growth has been. True, Francis is not himself African or Asian, but his election is an important way in which the Church's traditional European guard has demonstrated a greater openness to a world that is far more black, brown and yellow than it is white.
Secondly, the selection of a Jesuit -- a nearly 500-year-old order within the Church -- reaffirms the Church's long commitments to intellectual rigor, education, social justice, and ecumenism.
Thirdly, the choice of the name Francis -- after the beloved and humble Italian St. Francis of Assisi -- underlines the new pope's sincere and longstanding commitment to the poor.
As one of five children of an Italian-born railway worker, Francis comes from modest origins, and has embraced a simple lifestyle and service to others, regularly visiting the slums around the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
The election of such a man as pope could hardly be better timed. For it comes as the world is struggling as never before to balance the promises of development and modernity with principles of justice and the ancient imperative to care for the poorest among us.
The novelty of all these firsts may be overshadowed at times as Francis faces the challenges of leadership, including the lingering pain of sexual abuse scandals in the priesthood, the decline in Church membership in Europe, and the challenges of secularism.
There is a sense, too, even among many Catholics, that the Church needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century.
That cannot and should not be done by abandoning traditional positions. Indeed, those advocating radical change within the Church will be disappointed, for Francis is a theological and social conservative in the tradition of his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
But Francis appears to be exactly the right man to shift emphasis from Benedict's strengths -- intellectual and doctrinal rigor -- to a papacy that stresses love, service to others, and calling the faithful back to the Church and the central messages of Jesus Christ.
"Let us pray always," he declared in his opening remarks as pontiff, "not just for ourselves, but for others and everyone in the world because there is a great brotherhood among us."
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can only hope -- and pray -- that that brotherhood is strengthened in the years ahead.
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