The election of Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is a symbolic gesture by a conclave fully aware of the momentous point reached in their Church’s history. There are three features of the new Pope Francis’ election that are particularly bold; his age, his nationality and his religious order.
Pope Francis is seventy-six, only two years younger than Pope Benedict XVI was on his accession to the papacy in 2005. Benedict’s frailty was evident from an early stage of his reign and his almost unprecedented decision to resign was brought about by a physical and mental tiredness that meant he could not respond to the pressing challenges facing him in the Vatican.
In the past century, only one other Pope besides Benedict XVI and Francis have ascended to the holy position aged over seventy. This was Pope John XXIII who, like Francis, was seventy-six when he became Pope in 1958. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has refrained from appointing back-to-back “elderly” Popes to prevent instability. Whilst nobody can predict the future of Pope Francis’ health, his appointment is a gamble simply based on his age and given what we know happened to Benedict. In an era of unprecedented media scrutiny and papal corruption, mental stamina as much as physical stamina is required.
Pope Francis is Argentinian by birth. Not only does this make him the first Latin American Pope but he is also the first non-European Pope since Pope Gregory III in 731. Gregory was-Syrian born and also ascended to the papacy at a troubling time. The disintegrating Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) was embroiled in an iconoclastic controversy in which Christian relics and idols were being destroyed because of their perceived association with idolatry. This symbolic action threatened a rupture within the Catholic Church and similar acts of wanton destruction within the Papal States themselves.
Simultaneously, the Germanic Lombards had established a formidable kingdom on the Italian peninsula that left Rome surrounded. Papal lands were targets of pillage and invasion and Pope Gregory had run out of allies, with the exception of the fledgling Franks.
With the territorial and spiritual integrity of the Roman Church under threat, Pope Gregory’s task was unenviable. Yet it is not an overstatement to say that Francis’ task is every bit as challenging. With the Vatican tainted by corruption scandals, the Catholic Church’s reputation smeared by allegations of sex abuse against leading priests and Europe becoming increasingly atheistic and secularised, Francis has his work cut out to maintain the relevance of the Church in the twenty-first century.
It is no coincidence that a non-European has been appointed Pope. The majority of the world’s Catholics reside outside Europe’s borders, particularly in Latin America and the Philippines. This appointment is an important step of recognition for the Catholic Church and Pope Francis is likely to be a popular choice among the majority of non-European Catholics.
As well as being the first foreign Pope since the eight century, Francis is also the first Jesuit Pope in history. Founded in the 1530s by St Ignatius Loyola, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) built its reputation on a proselytising zeal that adopted militaristic efficiency in order to spread Catholicism around the world.
It is perhaps symbolic that Bergoglio has chosen the papal name Francis, given that his namesake, St Francis Xavier, was one of the Jesuits most ambitious and successful missionaries.
This missionary zeal may come in useful to Pope Francis, whose outspoken comments on political and social issues have shown him not to be a man to shy away from challenges. Instead of spreading Catholicism around the globe, the Catholic Church now also needs to re-energise its European followers. Whereas in the middle ages it was Europe that was the bastion of Catholicism, this is no longer the case and it is almost a role reversal for the missionary cause. Therefore, the appointment of a Jesuit, a “soldier of Christ” and a perceived communicator, is both symbolic and potentially effective.
By taking a more pragmatic stance on social issues, the new Pope has the opportunity to attach the Catholic Church to modernity and regain ground in Europe where secuarisation has become further and further entrenched.
Pope Francis’ election breaks with history. His appointment, despite his advanced years, is a positive one. It is a sign that the Vatican conclave is becoming more aware of the position their Church holds in the modern world; one of integral societal importance in Latin America and the Philippines; one of decreasing relevance in Europe.
Their decision in appointing Francis the Argentinian is a bold statement that they wish to preserve the first reality and change the second.