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Hope for the Church as non-European pope steps up to the pulpit

Well, it was the first time a pope had resigned in more than 600 years. So it was only fitting that it would also be the first time a pope would come from other than Europe in more than 1,300 years.

Of course the break with tradition might have been more dramatic if the Vatican conclave had chosen someone from Asia, or specifically the Philippines, or specifically Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle, but there are limits to the efficacy of prayer by Filipinos. And as they say, be careful with what you pray for: As one friend, a priest, told me, “You want to shove Chito into the murderous politics of the Curia? And I don't use 'murderous' entirely figuratively.” But that's another story.

The pope ended up coming from Latin America instead, and not without reason, though it was a bit of a surprise as he wasn't among the frontrunners. Latin America holds a staggering 42 percent of the world's Catholics, a rapidly decreasing tribe of late, beset as it is by the rise of Islam among the developing countries and the even more formidable rise of secularism in Europe. Specifically, he ended up coming from Argentina, and significantly from the ranks of the poor.

His elevation to pope has brought a measure of anxiety and joy, concern and exhilaration, among Catholics the world over, but not in equal measure. The joy and exhilaration have been far more overwhelming than the anxiety and concern. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, is widely seen as a blast of fresh air in one very stale room.

But first the anxiety and concern. One is Bergoglio's age, which is 76, which gives him only about 10 productive years or so. That was probably the second biggest thing going against Tagle, his age quite apart from his provenance: He isn't even a senior citizen yet. It reminds me of what a young Japanese told me once, which was that he couldn't understand why his country liked having doddering old fools running it instead of young blood.

Two is Bergoglio's role during the Argentinean military junta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a vicious rule that carried out torture, summary executions and forced disappearances of thousands of Argentineans. The Argentinean Church was universally regarded afterward as having given the dictatorship its blessings and Bergoglio at least to have given it his silence.

Three is that he is a staunch conservative doctrinally. He and Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have been feuding bitterly over the past few years over Bergoglio's opposition to Fernandez's polices endorsing gay marriage and contraception, a position many Argentineans support. Fernandez and Bergoglio have not been on speaking terms, until lately when Fernandez became one of the first world leaders to congratulate her compatriot on becoming pope.

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