New pope sets new precedents
The College of Cardinals chose the first non-European as pope in more than a millennium Wednesday, elevating Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, who will be known as Pope Francis I.
That is only one aspect of what makes Pope Francis unique, however. He is the first Jesuit to ascend to the papacy. And he comes not just from South America, but from equally far outside the Vatican power structure, which itself has become a source of controversy in the wake Pope Emeritus Benedict's abdication.
Pope Francis I is a conservative but is widely credited with modernizing the church in South America, where more than six in 10 people are Roman Catholic despite inroads made by evangelical Christians and the rise of anti-religious civic political movements. South Americans are about 480 million of the church's 1.2 billion members.
Though Jesuits widely are regarded as the intellectual corps of the church, Pope Francis I is best known for social outreach rather than doctrinal matters. He is a familiar figure in slums around Buenos Aires and he is known for riding the bus, cooking his own meals and so on.
It will be interesting to see how that common touch meshes with his papacy, whether he can translate that outreach to a global scale.
In selecting a South American, the cardinals have recognized global demographic shifts affecting the church. Their decision also seems to indicate a desire for a more global perspective on the famously insular Vatican itself.
The church's mission is constancy rather than change, but Pope Francis I's selection likely will be greeted by many Catholics, particularly in the United States, as necessary. The most significant thing about the selection, so far, is that the cardinals saw the need to move away from comfortable precedent.