The man behind the robes: Who is Pope Francis?

The Catholic Church has a new leader today, its first from the Americas. Who is Pope Francis, and how did he reach the pinnacle of his spiritual calling?

Pope Francis

A new pontiff has taken his place in history in Rome today as a conclave of cardinals from all over the world elected Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the leader of the Catholic Church.

The 76-year-old Jesuit has taken the name Pope Francis, which many faithful hope is a sign that the pontiff means to focus on the poor and unite the church in brotherhood during this notoriously troubled time, as did his namesakes St. Francis Xavier and St. Francis of Assisi.

But just who is the man behind the robe? Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1936 and earned a master’s degree in chemistry before being ordained as a priest in 1969. He rose through the ranks in his Argentinian diocese until being created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001.

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Bergoglio is known for his doctrinal conservativism, so those hoping the new pontiff would bring the church into a more socially modern era may be disappointed. As a cardinal, he encouraged his clergy to actively oppose abortion and euthanasia, opposed same-sex marriage as “demonic in origin” and a “real and dire anthropological throwback,” and held that anyone who supports these issues is not worthy of taking communion.

However, he is also known for his commitment to the poor and impoverished, much like St. Francis of Assisi himself.

“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities,” he said in 2009, calling for an ethical solution to social debt.

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“Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice,” Vatican deputy spokesperson Thomas Rosica told CNN.

Surprisingly, he does not take the same hard line against contraceptives as do many conservative Catholics, believing the use to be spiritually permissible to prevent the spread of disease.

What are the hopes for this new pope? Because he is one of the few cardinals untouched by church scandal, his followers hope Pope Francis will bring peace to the church after decades of battles over the physical and sexual abuse of children — an issue some believe caused Pope Benedict XVI to resign his post.

So what happens next? Pope Francis will begin to fulfill his public duties immediately, and he may even recite the Angelus prayer this Sunday, according to Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi. The Installation Mass will be celebrated on Tuesday, March 19, in the Sistine Chapel, where Pope Francis will receive his fisherman’s signet ring and pallium.

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