For the last 1,000 years, the leaders of the largest Christian organization in the world have been Europeans. They were all been born in Europe, raised in Europe, and shaped by European customs and culture. Today, for the first time ever, the leader of the Roman Catholic is an American. I do not mean to say that he is from the United States of America. Rather, he is a native of the American continent, a descendant of European ancestors. What will his unique perspective from another continent bring to the Vatican? The world is hoping that, whatever this change brings, it is enough to counter the series of small crises that have plagued the worldwide church of 1.2 billion members. Sex abuse scandals, infighting in the Roman Curia, and problems at the Vatican Bank will greet Francis I as soon as he begins his regular duties. These all come in addition to the already popular worldwide movements for homosexual rights, contraception, and abortion, all of which are opposed by the church.
It is possible that this all comes in response to the demographic/geographic shifts within the church itself. Even as church membership and activity are declining in the ever-more-secularized Europe, Latin American membership is growing, having now reached 41% of all Catholics worldwide. Indeed, it has been “perceived as a Catholic bedrock that needs support to counter the tremendous growth of Protestantism.” Perhaps the college of cardinals sees this choice as a way to reinforce that bedrock and counter the secular movements that have taken Europe. After all, as a cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was known to be a conservative defender of the traditional values of Catholicism. So, maybe this is a message to the world that, although people and origins change, the values and principles of the church will not.
Either way you look at it, this new pope will be exciting to watch. The themes he chooses to emphasize and the policies he advocates will all define the direction of the Catholic church in the coming years. Everyone around the world, including me, will be eagerly awaiting his first move.