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Catholic faithful have high hopes for new pope

In this 2008 photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario

In this 2008 photo, Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, second from left, travels on the subway in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Credit: AP

ROME -- Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man few had on their shortlists to become pope, is raising hopes among the faithful that he could become one of the most memorable leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Since his election Wednesday, Pope Francis has shown humility and a solidarity with the poor that is captivating many Catholics: personally paying his hotel bill in Rome, carrying his own bags and asking the crowd in St. Peter's Square to pray for him as he bowed the night he was elected.

On Saturday, he waved off a limousine after an event with several thousand journalists and opted to walk to his new residence in Vatican City, according to longtime Vatican reporter John Thavis.

Francis, 76, said during the event he would like to see "a church that is poor, and for the poor." The new pope chose his name in part because of St. Francis of Assisi's devotion to the poor.

"If he makes poverty the central issue of his papacy, he could go down as one of the great popes," said Jason Berry, an author whose books include "Vows of Silence," about the church sex-abuse crisis.

"I think he has the potential to be a great evangelizer."But Francis is also facing problems that could frustrate his papacy, church experts said. They include scandal and inefficiency in the Vatican, continuing sex-abuse allegations and the declining numbers of faithful.

Francis, who will be officially installed as pope Tuesday, will have to move quickly, analysts said.

"Any one of those crises would be a huge challenge, and he faces all three of them at the same time," said the Rev. Matthew Malone, editor of the Manhattan-based America magazine who, like Francis, is a Jesuit.

"He is walking into a pit of hissing snakes," Berry said of the problems. "I hope he has thick boots."With a broad mandate to reform the church hierarchy, Francis will likely focus quickly on the Vatican, experts said. They are watching closely to see whom he appoints as secretary of state, and whether that person will have the ability to shake up the Vatican hierarchy, also known as the Roman Curia.

"The cardinals want the Vatican curia reformed," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "And he knows very little about the curia because he's never worked there."

Dennis Coday, editor of the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter, said it is critical for Francis to clean up the Vatican quickly because the scandals "are distracting from the real work of the church" -- preaching Jesus and spreading the faith -- and are "ruining the credibility of the church on other issues."

Francis will also have to find a way to stem losses among the faithful. In the United States, one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church, Reese said. A generation ago, Latin America was almost 100 percent Catholic. Now it's about 80 percent.

"The major issue of the pope and of the church is to figure out how to preach the gospel in a way that's understandable and attractive to people in the 21st century," Reese said.

"Sometimes our churchiness gets in the way," he said, referring to stuffy church traditions and a 13th century theology that is unintelligible to people today. "The way he brings a simplicity of lifestyle to his ministry is going to help get rid of some of that churchiness."Reese added that he hopes the first pope from Latin America will also help stave off inroads that Pentecostal and other churches are making in that region. If Francis doesn't have a deep impact there, "we're going to see 40 percent of Latin America become evangelical," Reese said.

Francis is widely regarded as orthodox theologically and unlikely to change the church teachings opposing women priests, married priests, abortion and contraception. But he is also viewed as socially progressive in other ways, including his compassion for the poor.

Malone said the Francis papacy may contain an element of unpredictability, partly because of his intense training in the Jesuit spirituality of their founder St. Ignatius.

"He's not an ideologue," Malone said. "Ideology is the furthest thing you could get from Ignatian spirituality."

Francis as archbishop lived modestly in his own apartment in Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals, rode the public bus and spent time in the slums. But he was also critical of the Liberation Theology movement of the 1980s that was popular among some priests and nuns who worked with poor people in Latin America, Malone said.

Michael D'Antonio, a Miller Place-based author of books including "Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal," said he thinks Francis is an "approachable man who understands the compassion and empathy people crave from spiritual leaders."

He also thinks many will be disappointed as Francis' stance on key issues such as contraception turn out to be the same as his predecessors.

"Huge numbers of Catholics will continue to feel alienated," he said. "The biggest risk the Church faces is irrelevance in the developed world."But U.S.-born Rev. Thomas Rosica, the top assistant to the Vatican spokesman, said Francis has the strength and character to take on major challenges facing the church and focus on the poor, following the footsteps of St. Francis himself.

"He's a great, great bishop. He's loved by his people. He's dealt with the huge realities of the poor and social justice," Rosica said. "He is taking charge. No one is going to push him around."

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