• Statue of St. Peter in the Vatican (Photo: Mark & Becs)

EU leaders welcome 'non-European' pope

14.03.13 @ 09:27

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU leaders have hailed the election of the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years.

The 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who comes from Buenos Aires but whose parents were Italian, became Pope Francis at 7.06pm local time in Rome on Wednesday (13 March).

The first pope, St. Peter, was himself born in what is today Israel. But the last time the Vatican chose a leader from outside Europe was Pope Gregory III, from what is today Syria, in 731 AD.

Pope Francis reflects the geographic shift in Catholic popularity in modern times.

According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, Europe was home to 65 percent of the world's Catholics in 1910, while Latin America was home to 24 percent. By 2010, Europe had shrunk to 24 percent, while Latin America grew to 39 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa is growing equally fast, from 1 percent in 1910, to 16 percent in 2010.

Francis comes from the dogmatic Jesuit order.

He has some progressive views: on baptism of children born outside wedlock, on use of new media.

But he is conservative on other issues: in 2010 he organised marches in Argentina against gay marriage, which he called "an attempt to destroy God's plan."

His reputation is also tainted by the church's role in Argentina's so-called Dirty War against left-wing activists in the 1970s.

He is physically frail and he is said to dislike travel.

He took his papal name from the Italian holy man St. Francis of Assisi - a medieval aristocrat who espoused poverty and who talked to birds.

Official Vatican media on Wednesday described Pope Francis as: "A man who cooks for himself, takes public transport rather than using cars and who is a simple pastor."

In his first speech in Rome, he joked: "It seems that my brother cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get [their new leader]."

Meanwhile, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, both Catholics, but who represent the secularist EU institutions, welcomed the choice in a joint statement.

"On behalf of the European Union, we convey our sincere congratulations on your election. We wish you a long and blessed pontificate, which will allow your holiness and the Catholic church to defend and promote the fundamental values of peace, solidarity and human dignity," they said.

The head of the EU parliament, German left-winger Martin Schulz, noted: "The choice of a pope from outside Europe is an encouraging sign" of the church's will to modernise.

EU capitals also sent tributes.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, said: "I am especially happy for the Christians of Latin America.

Irish leader Enda Kenny, who has clashed with the Vatican over its handling of sex abuse cases, said: "We pray that he will have the strength, the good health and the spiritual guidance needed to lead the Catholic church in the many challenges it faces."

For his part, French President Francois Hollande underlined his country's enlightenment values in a brief note, which said: "France, faithful to its history and universal principles of liberty, fraternity and equality … is confident it will continue the dialogue it has always had with the Holy See."

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