In Francis, church has a new leader of humility, tradition

2013-03-15T00:00:00Z In Francis, church has a new leader of humility, tradition Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2013 12:00 am

The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Dallas Morning News:

One has to respect anyone who ascends to a position of extraordinary power and immediately asks for people's prayers.

"Pray in silence for me."

With that soft supplication, newly named Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, seemed to acknowledge the daunting task facing him: Spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics throughout the world. Administrator of a church losing membership and support in the United States, Latin America and Europe. Chief executive of an organization rocked by scandal.

The challenges are many. But at least on Wednesday, with 100,000 adoring believers cheering him on, Francis seemed to be a match for whatever he has to face.

He's the first pope from Latin America, which should help the Catholic Church in a region where it has been losing members to evangelicals. His ascension certainly won't hurt in the United States, particularly in areas where the church is increasingly Hispanic. U.S. Catholics were hoping for an American pope, but a Latin American may be the next-best thing.

He's also a Jesuit, a religious order noted for its work with the poor and its evangelism. The unassuming demeanor and modest words Pope Francis chose as he was presented to the world were telling. As was his choice for a name.

St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a rich merchant who willingly gave up a life of riches and pleasure for one of poverty and piety. The new pope, the first to be named Francis, is known in Buenos Aires for eschewing the perks of position, often choosing to walk among the people, for instance, rather than ride in a limousine.

"We're going to walk this road together," he told the faithful Wednesday. Such humility and sensitivity will serve him well. Much of the church's growth is happening in Africa, where poverty is a major issue and where Catholics tend to be more theologically conservative than their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe.

To that end, Pope Francis should be a comforting choice. He is known as a traditionalist, which should reverberate with Catholics in both Africa and Latin America. When the Argentine government legalized same-sex marriage, he took on President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, calling the law a "destructive attack on God's plan."

The lesson from past popes is that no man can ever be all things to all Catholics. He is constrained by 2,000 years of tradition and history and by a massive bureaucracy, as well as the dreams and expectations of a billion people.

But it is encouraging that the man chosen to lead that church began his reign by speaking softly, acting humbly and respectfully asking for the prayers of the faithful.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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