New pope's selection brings hope to Catholic church

Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th pontiff and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. (March 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Pope Francis didn't wear the traditional ermine mozzetta -- a red cape -- when he stepped to the balcony Wednesday.

Instead, he stood above hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square -- and millions and millions more Roman Catholics scattered in all four corners of the Earth -- in a simple white cassock.

Francis, the first pope from the Americas, made a point of asking for silence and prayers for himself before addressing the crowd.

And when he did talk, the man who is titular father of the church, made a point of talking straight to us, his "brothers and sisters."

The selection of a pope is a big deal for Roman Catholics because the sight of white smoke marks a moment when the divide between those who practice and those who've lapsed falls away.

With each new pope, there is new hope -- and maybe more so this time for Catholics whose affection for the church has been tainted by its abysmal response to pedophiles and a feeling that too many in charge have become too far removed from the flock.

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Pope Francis has a reputation of being humble; a gift for pastoral work and a penchant for speaking to rather than speaking at Catholics.

He's a Jesuit, which -- based on some of my demanding Jesuit teachers in high school -- means he's smart, politically savvy and has absolutely no problem speaking his mind.

Like many Jesuits, Pope Francis appears to be a social liberal and a theological conservative. He advocates for poor people, and hasn't been shy about voicing support of traditional church views on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception.

Women priests? That may be an issue in the United States and Europe, where vocations are few. But Pope Francis hails from South America, where there is no shortage of men willing to take priestly vows. And no shortage of Catholics who willingly embrace the church as a wellspring of faith, rather than critique.

As Chad Pecknold, assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told National Public Radio Wednesday: "The time may come when Catholics of the global south will be evangelizing Catholics of the global north."

Which is another reason why the selection of Pope Francis is significant.

Roman Catholicism is flourishing in South and Central America and in Africa, which gifts Pope Francis with an optimistic, rather than pessimistic, view of the church's future.

Pope Francis faces considerable challenges, not the least of which is leading a church that has become fractured in outlook and in opportunities to grow.

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He is responsible for leading every Catholic in every part of the globe now. What are his plans?

Perhaps the new pope's choice of a name offers some sign of hope.

According to the National Catholic, Pope Francis took his name from the 12th-century St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his simple lifestyle and dedication to the works of mercy.

We'll learn more about Pope Francis, and his intentions, in the days, months and years to come. There's no doubt that the church needs work, and that it needs significant change.

But humility, zeal for his faith and respect for his flock, all of which Pope Francis showed Wednesday, seem a good start.

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