Francis, a Jesuit, Is the First Pope From Latin America


Just under an hour after the white smoke appeared from the Sistine Chapel March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was announced as Supreme Pontiff, the 265th successor of Peter, from the balcony of the St. Peter’s Basilica. He has chosen the name Francis.

Francis is the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, and the first “Francis” in the pontificate.

The 76-year-old has been widely praised for his devotion to the poor and his humble lifestyle. And by selecting a pope from Latin America, the church hierarchy is recognizing the part of the world where Catholicism is growing fastest, says Professor Randall Balmer, the Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Department of Religion.

"Symbolically, it is a good choice to pick a leader from the Southern Hemisphere—from Latin America. His choice of the name Francis I and the Jesuit dedication to the poor are all positives," Balmer says. "But I don't see any major policy or theological changes."

Francis was elected pope in just two days, a period that has become the norm for conclaves of the past 50 years. The longest papal election was in the 13th century and lasted more than two years, says Christopher MacEvitt, an associate professor of religion who specializes in 12th- and 13th-century Christian communities. In fact, it was this delay that led to the institution of the papal conclave, which shut away the cardinal electors, he says.

"That's when the secular leaders in Rome said, 'We need a new pope; we're locking the doors.' It was not at all consensual. They started reducing food and supplies to step things up," MacEvitt says. "A cardinal even died during the process. The gossip was it was caused by the conditions."

At 76, Francis is the second oldest pope elected in the past century, second only to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was 78 when named. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was the youngest pope of the 20th century. He was 58 when elected in 1978. (The death of John Paul I that year after just 33 days as pope may have been a factor in the selection of a younger man to lead the church.)

MacEvitt and Balmer note that the election of an older pope gives the pontiff relatively less control over his political legacy, as it diminishes the power of appointment of cardinals. Conversely, the 26-year reign of John Paul II meant that his influence and conservative philosophy are still guiding Vatican politics, Balmer and MacEvitt say.

Francis, himself named Archbishop of Buenos Aires and later, cardinal, by John Paul II, has opposed abortion, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. And as a member of the Jesuit order, he has sworn strict allegiance to papal authority and has renounced the pursuit of political leadership, Balmer says.

"The Jesuit order goes back to 1534, to Ignatius of Loyola, and was a reaction to the Protestant reformation," Balmer says. "The cornerstone is obedience to the pope and the idea that a Jesuit will never put himself forward as a leader."

"I heard a comment after he was named that 'he didn't put himself forward to lead, someone else did,'" Balmer says.

Some critics have said that Francis was not supportive of the "Liberation Theology" movement that took hold in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s. But it is not surprising, Balmer says, as it was an edict from John Paul II in 1980 that officially barred Jesuits from holding political office—an effort by that pope to quash liberation theology.

"It is wishful thinking to expect Francis to make radical changes to the church on issues of abortion, homosexuality and women in the priesthood," Balmer says. "The symbolism is positive. We'll have to see what the substance is."

Bill Platt