Humble Francis brings both change and continuity

By Michael Hirst
BBC News, Rome

image captionThe 76-year-old Argentine has described inequality as "a social sin that cries out to Heaven"

The election of the first non-European Pope for more than a millennium- and the first from Latin America, home to 40% of the world's Catholics - reveals in the cardinals who elected him an awareness of the size and importance of the flock outside Europe.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a reputation as a humble pastor who even in high office commuted to work by bus, lived in an apartment rather than an apostolic palace and cooked his own meals.

In the inevitable comparisons with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, some will point to the new pontiff's credentials as a local bishop, rather than a Vatican insider.

The 76-year-old Argentine has described inequality as "a social sin that cries out to Heaven" - and has emphasised the Church's duty to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

He is known for modernising a previously conservative Argentine Church, while Benedict XVI served as Catholicism's doctrinal watchdog for more than two decades before he was elected Pope.

Italian roots

Cardinal Bergoglio certainly preferred life in the local Church to the bureaucracy of Rome's administrative body - the Curia, which is widely perceived as plagued with management issues and in need of reform.

Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit Pope - from an ancient and fiercely independent Catholic order that has not always enjoyed the best relationship with Rome.

However, he has worked on various Curial committees, as a member of the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Clergy among others.

He is a fluent speaker of Italian - as well as German and Spanish - so will have no problems communicating with the team around him.

Having Italian roots - both his parents were Italian - will be seen as a plus in a very Roman institution.

The new Pope is a theological conservative and those looking for a change in the Church's stance on abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception will be disappointed. He is staunchly orthodox on issues of sexual morality.

These qualities made him a strong contender for the papacy in 2005, when he was reportedly the chief rival to Joseph Ratzinger.

Pope Francis is also said to have warm relations with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, receiving awards from Jewish organisations, which strengthen his interfaith credentials.

He is a keen evangelist, criticising what he has called "the spiritual sickness of a self-referential Church" - and calling for the Church to "get out into the street".

Seen as in touch with the modern world, he has already invited journalists, some 5,600 of whom are in Rome to cover his election, to an audience on Saturday.

These skills will be needed as he tries to stem the flow of Catholics from the pews both in an increasingly secular Europe and a Latin America where Pentecostal churches are thriving.

He assumes the papacy at a time when religious intolerance is growing and will be tasked with shoring up confidence in an institution that has been rocked by the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

And the man who has to confront these challenges is a 76-year-old who has lived for decades with just one lung, having suffered a respiratory disease in his youth.

On Wednesday night he made an assured, if understated, start as he greeted the faithful from the St Peter's Basilica balcony.

Perhaps what summed up the encounter best was the new Pope's humility.

"Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord," he said in 2001.

It was characteristic that when he greeted his flock for the first time, Pope Francis blessed them, but only after he had asked them to pray with him - and for him.