Pope Francis: A Pope of Firsts?

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When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged from behind the red curtains onto the balcony at the Vatican on Wednesday to reveal himself as Pope Francis, he had already made history.

He is the first pope from Latin America, the first non-European pontiff in over 1,200 years, the first Jesuit and the first to chose the name Francis.

Unlike his predecessors John XIII (1958), Paul VI (1963), John Paul I (1978), John Paul II (1978) and Benedict XVI (2005), he did not raise his arms to the 150,000 people gathered in the rain soaked square.

Looking vaguely stunned, he made a timid smile and a simple blessing with his right hand. Then he stood still, arms straight by his sides.

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Wearing only a simple white cassock rather than a red papal cape and stole, and a simple cross rather than the customary gold pectoral cross, Francis made history again when he asked the crowd to pray for him.

“If I can ask a favor before the bishop blesses you, I ask you pray for me,” Francis said, and bowed his head.

“It was a totally unexpected gesture. Those holding the microphone and the book of blessings looked at him almost in shock,” Rome’s daily Il Messaggero wrote.

According to Vatican analyst John Allen, “the new pope is sending a signal that this will not be business as usual.”

He added that Bergoglio’s selection of the name of Pope Francis is “the most stunning” choice and “precedent shattering.”

Indeed, the name symbolizes “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church,” Allen said.

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In line with his low profile style, Pope Francis spent the first hours as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics by refusing to use the main car in the papal fleet, a comfortable Mercedes with the license plate SCV1 — Vatican City State 1.

Known to use public transport in his home town of Buenos Aires, the 76-year-old pontiff jumped on the bus with the other cardinals to get to the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence. He will stay there for some weeks while the apartment inside the Apostolic Palace undergoes some renovation work.

According to Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, he thanked the other cardinals at dinner, and said, jokingly: “May God forgive you for what you have done.”

On his first day as pope, Francis returned to the Church-run residence where he was staying before entering the conclave and insisted on paying the bill.

“We are not used to all this,” Father Lombardi admitted.

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Undoubtedly, Francis, who according to a report in the Italian news agency ANSA enjoyed dancing the tango with his girlfriend as a young man in Buenos Aires, has already created his own style of being pope.

Vatican analysts began using the word “Bergoglio paradox” to describe his thought: He is considered doctrinally conservative like his predecessor Benedict XVI, but he is also seen as a reformer for his strong advocacy for the poor.

However, reformer is a relative term when it comes to the Catholic Church. It doesn’t mean the end of celibacy for priests, the ordination of women, the acceptance of artificial birth control or gay marriage.

Although Bergoglio supports help for HIV victims and baptism for illegitimate children, he is strongly opposed to abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

His difficult relationship with Argentina president Cristina Kirchner faced the most tense moment in 2010, when she signed a law allowing same sex marriages.

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Whether he will be a pope of firsts, it might depend on how he will handle some of the most critical issues undermining the Catholic Church: above all, the sexual abuse crisis, and the corruption scandal highlighted by the Vatileaks scandal.

“Some of his first decisions will be the most interesting: who he chooses as his top officials at the Vatican, and whether he moves toward some of the reforms called for by cardinals over the last few weeks,” John Thavis, the former bureau chief for Catholic News Service, wrote on his blog.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has released the agenda of his first public appearances.

Pope Francis will deliver the traditional Angelus blessing from the Vatican on Sunday. He will be formally installed in a lavish open-air Mass in St Peter’s Square on Tuesday.

Heads of state, kings and queens and delegates from around the world are expected to attend.

Image: Pope Francis standing still, arms straight by his sides. Credit: Rossella Lorenzi