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Catholic Theologian Discusses Election Of Pope Francis

Newly elected Pope Francis (center) blesses the faithful on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals on March 13.

Newly elected Pope Francis (center) blesses the faithful on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals on March 13.

Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the Roman Catholic Church's new leader on March 13. Pope Francis, as he will be known, is the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years and wasn't considered a front-runner for the position.

RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to Yale University Divinity School professor of liturgical studies Teresa Berger moments after he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's at Vatican City for the first time.

RFE/RL: Was the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the Catholic Church's new pope a surprise to church watchers?

Teresa Bergen:
I think it was a surprise on the immediate level. When the name of the pope was first spoken in Latin, I think those of us who were familiar with the cardinals who were the front-runners started to think, "Was there a Jorge amongst them, and who would it have been?" And then when the official announcement came, I think many of us thought, "Wait a minute, who is that?"

RFE/RL: What was he known for as a cardinal? What were his interests?

He is known as a quite humble and ecologically interested man, but he's not a simpleton, he has a doctorate in theology. I think we saw on the balcony at St. Peter's today that he is loveable in a sense, but also somewhat shy. I liked what I saw.

RFE/RL: He is said to have a deep commitment to helping the poor.

One would expect that from a Latin American Catholic theologian and bishop, or at least one would hope that, that there is a commitment to issues of poverty.

RFE/RL: He is from the church's Jesuit order. Could you explain what that means?

The Jesuits are a religious order within the Catholic Church, founded in the 16th century. They have long played an important role within the church, but not an uncontroversial one. The papacy, in fact, at some point forbid the order, but then it was reinstituted. And there has been a sort of sense that probably a Jesuit wouldn't become pope because it would mean making someone from probably the most powerful order in the Catholic Church also the pope.

RFE/RL: How do you think Pope Francis will be different from Pope Benedict XVI?

That is something that remains to be seen. It's a bit early to say, although the way he appeared on the balcony immediately following his election already gives some sort of intriguing little pointers. For example, he came out in the white papal robe without any additional clothing -- he didn't in fact even wear the stole until after he offered the first papal blessing.

He also -- in what I thought was very moving -- before offering the papal blessing, asked the people gathered to bless him and to ask God to bless him, before he then imparted the papal blessing. And he bowed his head and led the crowd in a moment of complete silence. That's a sign -- if you read Catholic ritual right -- that's a sign of incredible humility and simplicity but also liturgical creativity. He doesn't just march in and say: "OK, I'm the pope, here is what I do: I give you my blessing." But he says, "Wait a minute, before I do that, you bless and empower me." I found that very moving.

RFE/RL: Pope Francis is the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,000 years and he's from Latin America -- home to 400 million Catholics. How significant is that?

It's huge. I had already hoped for a Latin American pope in the previous conclave [in 2005]. This is a wonderful recognition of the weight of the church's numbers, in a sense -- moving elsewhere than the European traditional heartland of the church.