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We Have an Argentinian Pope: Exploring what Francis I has to Offer

15/03/2013 14:07 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

It's 6.18pm, and the Sistine Chapel has let off a puff of white smoke. This can only mean one thing: it's habemus papam time. The crowd goes wild. Romans flock in. The pontifical band plays jubilantly.

Half an hour later the music has stopped: the musicians' arms are tired. The gathered faithful, standing in the rain, are impatient to learn who their new pope is. Time ticks on.

There is the possibility that some unpaid intern has released the wrong coloured smoke, forcing the Cardinals to frantically pick straws, or decide who looks the best wearing the papal tiara, in order to select the next Bishop of Rome. The world waits anxiously as one would wait for that Chinese takeaway on a busy Saturday night, anticipating the prawn crackers that are to come. Except when the new pope, the Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, eventually comes out onto the balcony, the Italian crowd visibly deflates: less prawn crackers, more won ton soup. There is a distinct lack of roar; smiles are reserved solely for the international news cameras. Any hope for an Italian pope is now gone; the papal throne remains occupied by a foreigner.

But there's hope. Like many Argentinians, the new pope is of Italian descent. He speaks the language fluently, along with German and Spanish. His linguistic skills would look impressive on any corporate CV. Yet it is not his ability to converse in multiple tongues that is that main interest here, but rather the fact that he appears to be the first of many things: the first South American pontiff, the first Jesuit pope, the first non-Europe to be elected in 1,300 years, and the first bearer of the name 'Pope Francis'.

It is this original appellation that says it all, taken in honour of the 12th century St. Francis of Assisi who rejected a life of wealth and comfort in order to pursue one of poverty and intense religious devotion. Back in Buenos Aires Bergoglio travelled around by bus and lived in a small flat, actively shunning the more luxurious standard of living typical (and expected) of bishops. When he went to Rome for the election, he told his fellow Argentinians that if he was appointed, they were to give their money to the poor instead of spending it travelling to Italy. He is not a Vatican insider and academic like Pope Benedict XVI, to whom he was runner-up back in 2005; instead he has a long history of pastoral experience. It would appear that the absence of enthusiastic cheering and revelry as he came out onto the balcony was actually rather fitting for this overtly humble man.

Overcoming social inequality is at the heart of Pope Francis' agenda. He has described it as "a social sin that cries out to Heaven", and is keen to see the Catholic Church re-focus its role on serving the poor and disenfranchised. Indeed, he assured Catholics that it was setting off on a "journey of fraternity, of love, of trust", a campaign which will hopefully resolve many of the issues currently dominating the Vatican, such as the widespread child sex abuse scandal and reports of the bureaucracy being rife with backstabbing. BBC News has described Francis' papacy as "challenging", and certainly this would appear to be the case - but the challenges that come, Francis will certainly rise to. His doctrine and theology are certainly conservative - homosexuality is still wrong, contraception remains immoral, and abortion is most definitely evil - but we see glimpses of liberalism. He has criticised priests who refuse to baptise the babies of single mothers, and he has declared condoms to be "permissible" in the prevention of STIs. Certainly, AIDS is a major concern of his, but a concern that is framed by compassion: in 2001 he visited a hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of twelve AIDS patients. He has also been praised for nurturing a strong relationship between Catholicism and Judaism, the head of the World Jewish Congress' stating that he is to be commended "for his open-mindedness."

But it cannot be denied that his appointment came as a surprise, and perhaps not a good one either. There are concerns over his ability to be 'tough', and the fact that the Society of Jesus and the Vatican have always had a tense relationship. Benedict XVI was haunted by the Hitler Youth Movement, and Francis I quite possibly by the junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. And still on everyone's minds is the shock resignation of the last pope, due to physical and mental exhaustion: at 76, Francis is only two years younger than Benedict was when he took the papal office - are we to expect another leave of absence any time soon?

So what does this all mean for non-Catholics? Well, probably not a lot. For most people, Pope Francis is just another old man who should really be on a golf course in Florida somewhere, enjoying retirement. And yet we all tuned into the news when the signal was given that a new pope had been elected, and for an hour or so everything was put on hold. For it is not so much who the pope is, but rather what he represents, that is so important. Here is a man who governs people's lives, who is head of an ancient institute that once upon a time monarchs used to bow down to. And it is not solely a spiritual role either: it is a political and social one, and the decisions that are made by this man will have a huge impact on his followers in terms of their welfare and well-being. Hopefully it will be positive. We shall have to wait and see.