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Keeler: Pope Francis is a surprise pick with a welcome name

Women hold rosaries at St Peter basilica during

Women hold rosaries at St Peter basilica during the conclave at the Vatican. Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis I on Wednesday, becoming the church's first Latin American pontiff after a conclave to elect a leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. (Mar.13, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

This is a pope who gives me hope. But for a few minutes, I have to admit, I was holding my breath.

The last time we had white smoke on day two of a conclave, I was pretty certain -- long before the "Habemus papam" announcement -- that the new pope was going to be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. And it was.

That gave me a feeling that our church wasn't going to be tending to its woundedness, but clinging to a pinched vision of church that wasn't going to lead the way forward.

So, when the white smoke went up this time, I feared the cardinal electors had chosen some old-guard Italian. Some news reports had said Cardinal Angelo Scola might have 40 of the necessary 77 votes. That sounded too much like the Ratzinger scenario of 2005.

The first sign that my glumness was misplaced was the given name of the new pope: Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- of Argentina.

Finally, a pope from a part of the world where the church is growing, and not from Europe, where it is shrinking. That's what I'd been hoping for.

The next surprise was even more heartening than mere geography: the name he chose.

In an op-ed on Monday, I expressed the hope that the new pope would recognize the brokenness of our church -- with the sexual abuse scandal and intrigue and dysfunction in the Vatican. And I didn't even mention the scandal of the ongoing exclusion of women from significant roles in governing the universal church. If the new pope were honest, I dared to think, maybe he'd think back to St. Francis of Assisi, who thought he heard Jesus telling him: "Repair my church." And maybe he'd decide the church is so much in need of fixing now that the best name he could take would be Francis.

And he did.

Of course, I thought as the afternoon wore on, this Jesuit pope could have named himself after St. Francis Xavier, one of the original Jesuits. Or St. Francis de Sales of France. Or maybe all three. But New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan soon made it clear the pope chose this name in honor of Francis of Assisi and his love for the poor. I hope his choice also reflects a sense of the need for repair, for Franciscan humility, and maybe even the Franciscan love for our great blue globe and all its creatures.

Another thing to love about him is that he's the first pope from the Society of Jesus. In my book, any new person I meet who happens to have SJ after his name gets 10 positive points right at the start -- for intelligence and scholarship. The late Jesuit Scripture scholar Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, though he wouldn't have broken the European mold, would have been a wonderful pope, I always felt.

The other thing to like about our new pope is that he was not exactly a central figure in the many lists of papabili put forward by various experts trying to guess which way the conclave might be going. This is a surprise I think we're going to like -- and not just because it confounds the wise.

In his first moments on the balcony, Francis quipped that he's a bishop of Rome called from afar -- a gentle echo of what Karol Wojtyla said in 1978 when he emerged on the balcony as John Paul II, the first Polish pope. Now we have our first Latin American pope.

And Pope Francis got me a little emotional when he humbly bowed and asked the vast throng to pray for him, before he gave them his blessing.

The secrecy of the conclave will probably make us wait a good long time before we learn any important details of what went on in the Sistine Chapel -- and how we all got it wrong. For now, I'm just content to rejoice that this Italian railway worker's son from Buenos Aires chose the name Francis.

His native city's name has been translated as Fair Winds, and we can all pray that this Jesuit who has picked a Franciscan name will bring to the church the fair and healthy winds of change that it so badly needs right now.

Grace and peace to you, Pope Francis.

Bob Keeler is a former religion reporter and editorial writer for Newsday.

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