The deaths and elections of Roman Catholic popes always are major stories, but the new pope who was elected Wednesday afternoon to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics marks a dividing line of time in the history of the Christian faith. Pope Francis is the first non-European pontiff in more than 1,000 years, and he is the first pope from the New World.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been the archbishop of Buenos Aires, but he crossed the threshold of votes needed among his fellow cardinals and in the blink of an eye he stands where only 265 other men have stood before him.
Technology provided simultaneous broadcast worldwide when he stepped on to the balcony above St. Peter’s Square in Rome and said to the throng assembled, “Good evening.”
No other religious figure commands as much attention and curiosity as a pope, especially a new one. No other solitary religious figure becomes immediately recognizable almost universally. Because Catholics outnumber all other Christian faith streams, the response he gets is immediately important.
Pope Francis, speaking in Italian, urged Christians toward movement, to walk in faith, to build on the rock, and to confess their faith in Jesus Christ.
Living without confessing Christ is like children building sandcastles on the beach, with no rock foundation, he said, according to translation provided by Birmingham, Ala.-based EWTN Global Catholic Network, which covered the Mass live.
The whole event, regardless of what detractors, cynics and people who question Catholic doctrine and practice say should set aside personal and cultural prejudices and revel in the moment.
No other position can draw as much attention to the unifying elements of the Christian message, and the opportunity becomes obvious for movement toward unity on important issues like caring for the poor, the powerless, the hungry, the sick, the homeless – all the issues cited in the Bible by Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the faith.
For a moment one person is able to focus attention on the best values held in common by at least 2 billion people worldwide under the common embrace of Christianity. That has to be good.
Soon enough, maybe already, the detractors will remember what it is they do, and the sounds of disunity will rekindle.
There is little doubt that in terms of religious faith one of the defining lines of history was crossed with the election of the first Catholic leader from the Americas and the first from the southern hemisphere. And we all should pay attention.