In the hours after telltale white smoke billowing from a smokestack atop the Sistine Chapel heralded the selection of a new pope, Harvard professors and a clergyman voiced hope Wednesday that the election of the Roman Catholic Church’s first ever pontiff from the Americas would spell an era of renewal for the Church.
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who will be called Pope Francis I, is the first Jesuit pope as well as the first non-European to lead the Church in more than a millennium. And at 76 years old, he surprised many commentators with his election. Though he was rumored to have been a popular candidate in the 2005 conclave that elected his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, he was thought by many to be too old to win this year.
“I think [Francis’s election] brings an important recognition to the growing church in Latin America, even though he’s a little older,” said Harvard Catholic Student Center Senior Chaplain Father Michael Drea. “It’s a recognition that the work of new evangelization cuts across the entire Church,” he added, referencing the Catholic evangelization agenda introduced by Pope John Paul II.
Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie Paulsell also expressed hope for the Francis papacy, particularly concerning gender issues.
“I hope Pope Francis will surprise us and open the way for [women] to become the priests and leaders the Church needs,” Paulsell wrote in an email.
The first pope to assume the name Francis, Bergoglio apparently chose the name to honor St. Francis of Assisi, according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who spoke with the new pope after his election. Many observers have pointed to parallels between the two men. While Francis of Assisi attempted to rectify a great Church conflict, the Crusades, in the early 13th century, Pope Francis I will attempt to guide the Church through an ongoing sexual abuse scandal and internal rifts.
Fifty-three minutes after the white smoke rose, Francis emerged onto a balcony above Saint Peter’s Square to symbolically launch his papacy. Speaking in Italian, Francis deviated slightly from the traditional script for papal introductions. Most notably, before reciting the traditional papal blessing of “urbi et orbi,” or “the city and the world,” the new pope led the millions of Catholics following his words in a prayer for the pope emeritus, who resigned last month.
Francis further delayed the ritual blessing with an unusual request.
“Before the bishop blesses the people, I ask that you would pray for the Lord to bless me,” he said.
As the crowd below grew silent in prayer, Francis bowed. The thousands in the square remained silent while Francis finally returned to the script, delivering a blessing to “you and the whole world, to all men and women of good will.”
Drea said he thinks Francis sent a message with his unique presentation.
“Humility and thankfulness really defined his words. He actually bowed when he asked people to pray for him,” Drea said. “It was a humble recognition that he needs the prayers of faithful people to lift him up, so he can carry out this incredibly challenging task.”
But despite Francis’s humility, some saw the selection of another old pope—Benedict was 78 when he was elected in 2005—as a missed opportunity.
“Given the enormous agenda for the church in the coming generation and the multiple crises it now encounters, [Francis’s age] struck me as somewhat unfortunate, as we could—God forbid—be electing another pope very soon,” Harvard Divinity School professor Kevin J. Madigan wrote in an email.
Bergoglio’s election came a month after Benedict’s historic announcement that he was stepping down from the papacy, a move that provoked surprise and speculation from Harvard professors.
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.