Unassuming papal choice faces unsettling change

Posted: Mar. 17, 2013 12:46 am Updated: Apr. 7, 2013 2:15 am

POPE FRANCIS is faced with bringing reform to an institution that moves methodically and deliberately in accordance with principles of faith and centuries-old rituals.

He assumes this burden after Pope Benedict XVI chose to become the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church in nearly 600 years to retire into seclusion.

Thus, the choice of Benedict's successor assumed unusual importance and had to be made without offending powerful constituencies.

The Italian cardinals were grumbling that the post of Bishop of Rome -- theirs for most of the past 2,000 years -- recently had twice gone to foreigners, a German and a Pole.

The College of Cardinals -- whose members were chosen by either John Paul II or Benedict, both conservative -- wanted an inspirational leader but not one who would stray from orthodoxy or exhibit personal flamboyance.

After only two days of deliberation, the electors' relatively swift choice of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio showed the church's ability for decisiveness and compromise.

At 76, Cardinal Bergoglio was a known quantity. Soft spoken, he was thoroughly orthodox: He was firmly against abortion and contraception, marriage for priests, ordination for women, and liberation theology. And when Argentina enacted a same-sex marriage law, he denounced it as "the machinations of the Father of Lies."

Bergoglio would be the first pope from the Americas, more especially from Latin America, one of the most deeply Catholic parts of the world. His parents, however, were Italian immigrants and his name satisfyingly Italian.

He had lived simply and humbly in Buenos Aires, taking a small apartment, cooking his own meals and using public transportation, so he was unlikely to be seduced by the grandeur and pageantry of St. Peter's and the ample amenities of the Vatican.

As the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, Pope Francis must contend with deep and unsettling changes. In Europe and the Americas, church attendance is flat or declining. Even in his own Argentina, only 19 percent attend Mass weekly, and in Latin America Catholicism faces increasing competition from evangelical faiths.

The church's greatest growth is in the Third World, but in parts of Africa and the Mideast Christianity faces its greatest persecution. In China, the communist government has chosen to take over the Catholic Church, naming its bishops and priests without regard to Rome and monitoring what they preach.

Still, the pope is one of the world's most influential leaders and voices. No one doubted his seriousness when Pope Francis said he needed the prayers of the people.