President Obama wrapped up a rare meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon by giving his adversaries a piece of news. “I made the announcement that we saw smoke,” the president told reporters as he left the Capitol shortly after 3 p.m.
Of course, by that time most of Washington was already transfixed on televised images of white smoke pouring out of a Vatican chimney, signaling that a new pope had just been elected by the cardinals gathered inside the Sistine Chapel.
Soon afterward, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, stepped out on a balcony and introduced himself to the world as the first Pope Francis. Reactions to the first man from the Americas to lead the Catholic Church began pouring out almost immediately.
“I’m surprised and excited—it’s an extraordinary selection,” said Stephen Schneck, chair of the politics department at Catholic University of America. “It’s a breathtaking [selection].... It’s in the Southern Hemisphere that the Church is most robust; that’s where all the growth is taking place in the developing world. It’s marvelous that the conclave has picked a pope that comes from that part of the world.”
The new pope is from Buenos Aires, a former Jesuit priest and theology professor who rose to the rank of cardinal in 1998. The Wikipedia page for Bergoglio—which was updated with his new name, Pope Francis, moments after he appeared on the Vatican balcony—says he is “known for personal humility, doctrinal conservatism and a commitment to social justice.”
“This is a fellow with a long history of being literally involved—hands-on involved—in social-justice issues in Latin America, for the poor, for the AIDS victims,” Schneck said. “This is a person that’s been boots-on-the-ground in the church’s engagement with the needs of the poor, the needs of the marginalized.”
Bergoglio has also been associated with Communion and Liberation, a conservative movement within the Catholic Church. He was an outspoken opponent of an Argentine proposal to allow same-sex marriage, a position aligned with the church hierarchy but one that upsets some Catholics.
“As the head of an organization that works for LGBT rights, we’re certainly concerned about Pope Francis’s statements in the past about same-sex marriage and adoption of children by same-sex couples,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a Massachusetts-based organization of LGBT Catholics. “We hope he’ll take the time to enter into dialogue with the LGBT community and with kids raised by same-sex parents and really come to understand our lives and our faith before he makes papal pronouncements on these issues.”
Most of the reactions in Washington on the first day of the new papacy were filled with praise, joy, and words of prayer.
“Habemus Papam! Praised be Jesus Christ! We have a Pope!” was the headline on a statement issued by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. In it he said, “Pope Francis is endowed with so many gifts that enhance his mission now as the chief shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.”
“The new Holy Father Francis I has an immense task ahead of him, and I pray that God will uphold him with strength, wisdom, and courage to take on the challenges and beauty of his new role,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said in a statement.
The White House also issued a statement after Obama returned to the Oval Office, saying he and the first lady offered “warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis as he ascends to the Chair of Saint Peter and begins his papacy.”
This article appears in the March 14, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Smoke Signals.