Why Pope Francis is something of a surprise

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina - now Pope Francis - was not widely considered the top candidate heading into this week's conclave.

Luca Bruno/AP
Pope Francis speaks from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, March 13. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name of Francis, is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

Habemas Papam, “We have a pope.” And the name of the man to emerge on the balcony in Vatican City is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

The church leader that believing Roman Catholics call the “successor” of the apostle Peter and “the vicar of Christ” will go by the name of Pope Francis and is the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first from a developing country.

The much-awaited choice is something of a surprise, as the new pope was not foreshadowed prominently on the short lists of various experts, though the 76-year old was said to be the runner-up to retiring Pope Benedict in the 2005 conclave.

Cardinal Bergoglio, a Jesuit intellectual who reportedly eschews the ornate trappings of church power – he travels by bus – was elected in a swift five votes of a conclave of 115 cardinals, and immediately appeared to say the Lord’s Prayer to crowds on the Vatican plaza.

Like his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI who resigned last month, the first head of the Catholic church to do so in 600 years, Pope Francis is said to be theologically orthodox and socially conservative. He has opposed Argentina’s gay marriage laws, has been fiercely pro-family, and is also known as an advocate for the poor. In church terms, he is seen as a master conciliator who will be adroit at healing many of the rifts and scandals over finances and pedophile priests that have dogged the Vatican in recent years.

The conclave appeared to steer away from popular choices like the cardinals of New York and Boston, Timothy Dolan and Sean O’Malley, as well as the local Italian favorite Angelo Scola.

He was elected by a conclave that overwhelmingly shares the conservative views of Benedict who has held sway as an enforcer of orthodoxy in the Vatican since 1982.

As John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter writes, “Either John Paul II or Benedict XVI appointed each of the 117 cardinals who will cast a ballot, including 11 Americans, so there will be little ideological clash. No matter what happens, the church almost certainly won't reverse its bans on abortion, gay marriage or women priests.”

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