Francis I represents an important shift from the eurocentrism of his predecessors. Even as he rebuilds the Church through renewed attention to poverty and inclusion, however, the real changes will be in Rome.

Jorge Maria Bergoglio – Pope Francis I – is the first truly global pontiff. It is not just that the Argentinian was picked up ‘almost at the ends of the world’, as he put it in his first public appearance as pope. The dynamics of the conclave on 12–13 March 2013 showed that, for the Vatican, it was the end of an era. The Americas have moved from the periphery to the very heart of the Catholic world. Eurocentrism is no more. The creation of a council of eight cardinals taken from all five continents as global advisers that Francis announced on 14 April confirms his intention to fundamentally reshape the government of the Church. His choice of name – from St Francis of Assisi – also symbolises a focus on the poor of the world’s mega-urban slums. This focus stems from the new pope’s day-to-day experience as archbishop of Buenos Aires and reflects a global trend.

The election of Francis implies an important shift. John Paul II, the Polish pope, whose 1978 election contributed to the defeat of the Soviet empire, was the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. He visited more than 120 countries, but he was a globetrotter, not a global pope. His cultural and geopolitical values and views were deeply affected by his experience of priesthood behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. His successor Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), with his German–Bavarian intellectual approach, was even less global, and represented an attempt to regain Europe for Catholicism. His capture by the Roman Curia showed how difficult any attempt at reform would be. His almost unprecedented abdication seemed to be a traumatic and desperate gesture, intended to change the centuries-old profile of the papacy and show frustration over an inability to steer a Vatican badly constrained by deeply rooted power centres.

In the next few months we can foresee attempts to characterise Benedict XVI’ s resignation as an exception rather than a precedent. The latter would entail a desacralisation of the papal role and disorient the Catholic community. But there would be a further political consequence: the possibility of provoking further resignations at the top might be a dangerous invitation to destabilise a future pontificate from within or outside the Church. The selection of Bergoglio, Ratzinger’s chief rival in the 2005 conclave, might be an attempt to start over and forget the ‘pope emeritus’.

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Massimo Franco is a political columnist for the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera. He is the author of Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the US – Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict (Doubleday Random House, 2008) and Crisi dell’Impero Vaticano (The Crisis of The Vatican Empire: Why the Catholic Church has become the New Global Accused) (Milan: Mondadori, 2013). The latter is to be published in the United States in autumn 2013 by Open Road.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June–July 2013

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