The election of Cardinal Bergoglio as the new Pope is a major surprise which has confounded Vatican watchers worldwide. But the choice of this elderly cleric from Argentina also points to continued conservatism at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
The emergence of the new Pope marks a number of significant firsts. It is the first time that the Church has elected a pontiff from Latin America and not from the tight |circle of European cardinals.
It is the first time that an incoming Pope has chosen an entirely new name — in this case Francis I — and it is the first time that a |Jesuit has been chosen as pontiff.
These are all signs of a slight change of direction in a papacy coming from the burgeoning growth of Catholicism in the developing world and not from the heartland of European Christianity, which is facing sustained pressure from secularism and materialism.
However, the election of a 76-year-old conservative from Latin America will disappoint those who looked for a much younger man with new ideas and consummate communication skills for a world mission and a world audience.
People will also ask whether the new man will have the energy, firmness and determination to deal with the scandals which have been disfiguring the Church in recent times, including clerical child sex abuse.
Pope Francis is strong on social justice and he has chosen a humble and markedly non-materialistic lifestyle.
This will go down well with people who look for a leader immersed in the teaching of the faith.
But the new Pope’s theological conservatism on sexual matters does not bode well for those who want the Catholic Church to take a courageous new line on clerical celibacy, as well as a greater understanding of the human dimension of same-sex relationships.
The sudden resignation of the former Pope, Benedict XVI, the first by a pontiff for nearly 600 years, surprised and shocked the Catholic Church worldwide and left a great deal of baggage for his successor.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Pope Francis faces is how to reassure the world that there will be no more cover-ups for child-molesters and that offenders will be no longer shielded by the Church and shunted into positions of institutional safety.
He will also need to show quickly that suspected offenders will be reported to the civil authorities and that those found guilty will face the full rigour of the law.
The new Pope also needs to be strongly independent and to resist relying on close Vatican advisers from the Curia, who are often more concerned with the protection of the institutional Church, rather than the welfare of its members.
If he fails to reform the Curia and bring its members to heel, his pontificate will be seriously compromised from the start.
Pope Francis also needs to address the thorny issue of clerical celibacy, which has no basis in Scripture, and to persuade the Church to allow priests to marry if they want to do so.
He will need to elevate the role of women in the Church, instead of treating some of them with hostility, like the American nuns who criticised some of the Church’s teaching. The Catholic Church needs to realise that self-criticism can also be healthy.
The new Pope will also need to reach out more widely to Protestants and those of other faiths.
His predecessor was clumsy in his overtures to Islam, and many Protestants remain annoyed by the Catholic claim that it is “the only true Church”.
This is a formidable set of challenges facing anyone in a new job — and particularly a man of 76.
Pope Francis, like the much-loved Pope John XXIII many years ago, may live to surprise us all, and he deserves the benefit of every doubt.
However, by electing an elderly and conservative Pope at this juncture in its history, the Catholic Church seems to be opting for continuity, rather than significant short-term progress.