Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

At 2:07 p.m. EST last Wednesday, March 13, white smoke billowed out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, signaling to the thousands of Catholics gathered in St. Peter’s Square and to the world that the College of Cardinals had elected the 266th Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church.

The historic papal conclave, convened quickly after the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February, began a day earlier, on March 12, with no conclusive results. On the fifth ballot of the conclave in late Wednesday afternoon, Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio received the two-thirds majority vote needed to win.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced his name more than an hour after the white smoke first appeared. Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Bergoglio, who chose for himself the papal name Francis, stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to greet the crowd gathered below, which had grown sizably after the white smoke appeared.

“You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome,” Pope Francis began. “It seems that my brother Cardinals have come almost to the ends of the Earth to get him.”

As widely speculated prior to the conclave, Pope Francis’ election marked a number of historic firsts. He is the first pope from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere. He is the first from outside Europe since Gregory III reigned in the mid-eighth century. Bergoglio is also the first Jesuit elected to the papacy. In addition, his choice of the name Francis was a previously unused name since Pope Lando in the early 10th century.

Bergoglio’s election came as a surprise both for its speed and its result. With no clear frontrunner at the start of the conclave, the voting was expected to last much longer than the 2005 conclave, during which Cardinal Ratzinger was the obvious choice to succeed Pope John Paul II. Instead, it only took one more ballot than the 2005 conclave for Bergoglio to cross the two-thirds threshold. It has been widely reported that Bergoglio won as many as 40 votes at one point in the 2005 conclave as runner-up to Ratzinger.

Despite his strong showing in 2005, Bergoglio was hardly mentioned as a contender this time around. In the days leading up to last week’s conclave, Cardinals Odilo Scherer of Brazil and Angelo Scola of Italy were considered the top candidates. To put Bergoglio’s election in perspective, his odds of winning ranged between 25:1 and 150:1 on various betting websites.

Bergoglio was born in 1936 in Buenos Aires to Italian immigrants. He is just two years younger than Pope Benedict XVI at the time of his election. Despite earning a chemistry degree in the late 1950’s, Bergoglio embarked on the path to priesthood. He served as Argentina’s Jesuit provincial in the 1970’s. His actions in that post have been subject to controversy as some have accused him of turning a blind eye to the Dirty War kidnappings of two Jesuit priests by the military dictatorship at the time.

Nonetheless, Bergoglio became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 before being elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2001. Bergoglio’s doctrinal views are staunchly conservative, putting him at odds with the social liberalism of current Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Yet, Bergoglio is loved by many for his humble lifestyle. As archbishop, he refused to live lavishly and instead cooked his own meals and took the bus to work. Bergoglio is also known for his passion for social justice and support for the poor. In his first statement to the press last Saturday, the new pope explained that he chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, a “man of poverty” and “a man of peace.”