White smoke billowed from the roof of the Sistine Chapel Wednesday, indicating that the Catholic Church had chosen its next pope.
The College of Cardinals elected Jorge Bergoglio, who will be named Pope Francis I, as the papal successor.
During a lifetime of teaching in Argentina, Bergoglio, 76, displayed the kind of political awareness and humility that is valued by church leadership.
Bergoglio was initially trained as a chemist. He taught literature, psychology, philosophy, and theology before becoming the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. In 2001, as the Argentinean economy was collapsing, he became cardinal. During this time, Bergoglio won the respect of millions of Argentinean’s when he criticized unrestrained capitalism as the reason for millions of impoverished citizens in the country.
Bergoglio is credited with modernizing the Argentinean church that was known as one of the most conservative in Latin America.
On spiritual issues, Bergoglio is a conservative leader. He openly opposes abortion and same sex marriage, and he supports celibacy in the priesthood. With that said, National Cathedral reporter John Allen said Bergoglio is “no defender of clerical privilege, or insensitive to pastoral realities.”
Bergoglio is commended by church leaders for exemplifying humility throughout his career. Rather than living in the church mansion as a cardinal, he opted to live in a small building instead. At a time when many high-ranking church officials live lavishly, Bergoglio cooked his own meals and took public transportation nearly everywhere he went.
The new pope considers social outreach to be the churches’ most important mission. Bergoglio has lived out this belief throughout his career, spending endless days in the slums that surround Argentina’s capital. Bergoglio chastised church priests for being hypocritical forgetting that Jesus bathed lepers and dined with prostitutes.
"Jesus teaches us another way: Go out,” Bergoglio said to Argentina’s priests last year. “Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”
Bergoglio’s legacy is not without blemish, however. His political influence in the country has been extremely limited since President Cristina Fernandez took control of the Argentinean government in 2007. Bergoglio has unsuccessfully tried to prevent the government from legalizing gay marriage, providing free universal contraception, and using artificial insemination.
The new pope also faced criticism for failing to openly challenge Argentina’s murderous dictatorship from 1976-1983. During this dictatorship, thousands of Argentineans were kidnapped and killed as the coup sought to eliminate what it deemed “subversive elements” in society. Many Argentineans’ remain angry to this day over the churches failure to use its political power for action during this time. This failure to act is believed to be a reason that two-thirds of the Argentinean population identifies as Catholic, while only 10 percent regularly attend Mass.
However, in October of 2012, under Bergoglio’s leadership, the Catholic Church of Argentina issued an apology to its members for its failure to act during the dictatorship’s reign. The statement blamed the era’s violence on both the junta and its enemies.
In his 2012 address to the Argentinean church, Bergoglio said the country was being harmed by demagoguery, totalitarianism, and efforts to secure unchecked political power. His message was endorsed by many during a time when Fernandez was ruling by her own decree and political scandals were not being investigated.
Bergoglio will be the first non-European pope in the churches’ modern era. Many within the church believed the new pope should be an “outsider” who could help to repair the Vatican’s image as a bureaucratic and dated organization.
Jorge Bergoglio, now named Pope Francis I, is the first Jesuit pope in the history of the church.