Pope Pancho, the First Pope of the Americas

Literally millions of Latinoamericanos throughout our hemisphere light up with pride at Pope Francis' arrival

By Patricio Gomez, Mexican American Political Association
Published on LatinoLA: March 30, 2013

Pope Pancho, the First Pope of the Americas

The oldest monarchy in the world has chosen its new pontiff or emperor. The conclave of 115 church princes, as the cardinals are known, made the selection of the first Jesuit and non-European amongst them to head the 1.2 billion Roman Catholic Church.

Formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, the new pope has taken the simple name of Pope Francis, Francisco, or Pancho an endearing derivative of Francisco. He explained to the world that he chose this name in remembrance and affirmation of Saint Francis of Asisi who was renowned for his simplicity and humility, and considered a church reformer in his day. The cardinals could be considered the institutional electors who vote in secret since other clergy and laity is excluded from participating in the pope's coronation.

In a demonstration of the humility he seeks to imbue in the international church, Pope Francis celebrated mass this Holy Thursday at the Casal de Marmo juvenile detention facility in Rome where 12 youth were selected for the ritual foot-washing. Two females were included in the ceremony as well as devotees of other faiths. The pope explained that, "This is a symbol, it is a sign - washing your feet means I am in your service."

He explained to the youngsters that Jesus washed the feet of his disciplines on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service. In his previous role as archbishop of Buenos Aires he was known for visiting jails and hospices to celebrate the ritual. Allowing females to participate is significant in that liturgical law of the church requires that only men be permitted as celebrants.

Much has been made of the fact that Francis' selection signifies a movement away from the First World to the developing world by the church in deference to the bastion of strength represented by Latin America's 500 million congregants, although even here the church's growth has stalled.

Some theorize that this is due to the significant urbanization of the population over the past fifty years, the phenomenal growth of education, increased secularization of society similar to the European experience, and aggressive competition from Protestant evangelical religious denominations. The demographics are changing faster than the institution itself. Today, Africa is considered the greatest growth area for the church. Approximately 40 percent of Catholics in the U.S. have their roots in Latin American, particularly Mexico. Latinos are considered the growth factor for the church in this country.

The challenges confronting Pope Francis are monumental. Faced with various crises including the sexual predator scandal that continues to unfold in different parts of the globe, accusations of financial improprieties, notably money laundering by the Vatican bank, allegations of rampant corruption and infighting observed in the Curia, the church's administrative bureaucracy, declining church attendance throughout Europe, and competitive evangelization by other religious sects, humility is on the order of the day for the Catholic faith. Other issues that will dispute the pope's doctrinal leanings include homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the ordination of female priests, and a greater role for the church laity. These are all issues of seismic proportion that would seem to defy his doctrinal training, which occurred in Germany.

Pope Pancho is considered conservative theologically, in the same mold as his two immediate predecessors, Pope Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In his previous role as archbishop and Jesuit order leader he vehemently opposed same-sex marriage and the ordination of female priests, and went toe-to-toe with the proponents of theology of liberation on the continent. Ironically, the essence of the latter doctrine was the "preferential option for the poor," that arose in the 1960s when poverty indicators for church followers were epidemic. He was also considered implicit in the military dictatorship that took power in Argentina in 1976 until 1983, which consumed the lives of 30,000 dissidents, including 150 priests, when he was the Jesuit provincial in charge of the religious order. However, he was never formally charged or found to have actively supported the military regime.

The pope's outward expressions of simplicity are not considered contrived, although individual acts of humility in themselves are not institutional. Due to the pope's age, 76, it is questionable whether he will have the staying power to make the institutional change that he champions, which was considered the motivating factor that won his colleagues favor.

Literally millions of Latinoamericanos throughout our hemisphere light up with pride at Pope Francis' arrival. It signifies their own arrival in a church that they have built since its founding on the continent 500 years ago. Let us pray that the option for the poor espoused by Pope Pancho is more than form.

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