Pope Francis, the first-ever Jesuit and Latin American to lead the Roman Catholic Church, was not a widely known figure on the international stage before emerging Wednesday evening on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. But for many, his humble demeanor and speech made a powerful impression.
In his first address as Supreme Pontiff, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a native of Buenos Aires, joked that the cardinals had gone “almost to the end of the world” to find their new Bishop of Rome. And before stepping back inside, he asked for a favor of his “brothers and sisters.” Pray for me, he asked.
Brother Charles Hilken, an expert in papal history at St. Mary’s College of California, said he knew no other modern pope to make such a “beautiful, authentic gesture.”
“He had the presence of mind to know that he’s more than the choice of 115 elderly men from all parts of the world. He had to be the choice of Rome and the rest of the world,” Hilken said.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis developed a positive reputation for his work with the poor. He eschewed the perks of high office, living in a small apartment instead of a palace and taking the bus instead of chauffeured car.
He is an arch conservative when it comes to social issues but also has preached compassion for the poor, AIDS sufferers and the otherwise downtrodden.
"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," Bergoglio told a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
Father David Cooper, who heads the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, believes the Cardinals opted for a change of direction by selecting Bergoglio.
"He's what you might call a working man's pope. He is not aristocratic," Cooper said. "I would see that as a departure.”
In that sense, the choice reminded Cooper of Pope John XXIII, a son of sharecroppers who defied expectations that he would be a caretaker pontiff and instead became a major reformer, calling for the Second Vatican Council that modernized the church.
"I think he'll have a way of working with people," Cooper said of Francis. "From the first words he said, about bringing people together into one brotherhood, to me that sounds like he's really talking about unifying and not dividing."
Bergoglio will be the first Jesuit pope and the first pope to choose the name Francis, for St. Francis of Assisi, who abandoned his wealth and devoted his life to the poor.
As a member of one of the largest Catholic religious orders, Francis will be able to draw from a vast international network of missionaries, said Helen Osman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"He's going to bring great depth for theological purposes, but also a great depth from the heart, which is where the church is supposed to be," Osman said.
Like many Catholics, Osman is still learning who Francis is. But she was impressed by the image of him standing on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, looking out at the crowd. "I was struck by his humbleness," she said. “I can’t presume to know what he was thinking, but it almost looked like a bit of panic on his face.”
His address, however, struck Osman for its message of egalitarianism. "He talked about starting this journey together, bishop with the people and people with the bishop. It's like going back to the gospel stories about Jesus walking along with the road with his disciples. He sees himself as making a journey with fellow Catholics and the rest of the world."
Raymond Schroth, literary editor of America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, said he was nearly brought to tears upon seeing Bergoglio emerge as pope. To him, the choice means a break from the status quo in many ways.
"The most delicious detail is, well, we all have a lot of fantasies about what we'd do if we were pope or bishop and one of mine has always been that I'd just live in a couple rooms and live simply," Schroth said. "I'd try to identify as much as possible with the poor. And this seems to be a man who has done that."
Francis is also expected to be a defender of traditional Catholicism. His views on gender, sexuality and abortion are closely aligned with the traditional views of the church.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who was among the two dozen prelates named as possible successors to Benedict XVI, said in a statement that Pope Francis continues the mission of St. Peter “in an increasingly secular culture, where many people have not come to know or have forgotten that Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer.”
“We pledge our faithful support for the Holy Father as he leads the Church in proclaiming the new Evangelization, inviting all people to develop a closer relationship with Christ.”
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Francis studied philosophy, theology and chemistry and was ordained in 1969. As a teenager, he suffered an infection that required surgery to remove most of one lung, but he recovered and has not faced significant obstacles as a result of the operation, The Associated Press reported.
Four years after he was ordained he was later elevated to lead the Jesuits in Argentina and in 1992 was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. When Cardinal Quarracino died in 1998, he was installed as the city's new archbishop.
According to the National Catholic Register, he originally planned to be a chemist, but later decided to enter the priesthood and spent much of his early career teaching literature, psychology and philosophy. He developed into a champion of the poor, avoiding the perks of his appointments and chastising his fellow church leaders for straying from their teachings.
"These are today's hypocrites; those who clericalize the church," he told priests who had refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers, according to The Associated Press. "Those who separate the people of God from salvation."
Critics have accused Bergoglio and other church leaders of not taking a strong enough stand against the military dictatorship's 1976-83 crackdown on leftists and political opponents, but Bergoglio later sought public forgiveness for the church's inaction.
Francis, who was selected on the second day of the conclave, will be officially installed as the 266th pope on Tuesday, March 19 in St. Peter’s Square.