NBC News Vatican analyst and papal biographer George Weigel says Cardinal Bergoglio was the right choice, a man whose simplicity, austerity and gentleness can put the church on the road to a new future. Not a "maintenance guy" that merely oversees the status quo, Cardinal Bergoglio is expected to teach the Church how to be missionary again.
Pope Francis has a to-do list as long as his cassock.
The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio will lead 1.2 billion Catholics and a church at a crossroads — wrestling with scandal after scandal, changing demographics and calls for liberalization.
Here are seven pressing challenges for the new pope:
1. Cleaning house at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI ordered that a report on church bureaucracy be shown to only two men — himself and his successor. After he gives it a read, Francis will have to address backbiting, corruption and cronyism inside the Vatican and increasing pressure to make its finances more open. Church analysts were watching closely to see whether cardinals would elect a Vatican insider protective of church secrecy. Instead they picked a man from halfway around the world.
American Catholics are praying Pope Francis will be able to repair the Church, damaged by scandal, and help usher in an era of credibility that can draw in more young parishioners. NBC's John Yang reports.
2. Leading the church out of the sex abuse scandal. The crisis consumed Benedict’s papacy and threatened to overshadow the conclave, with abuse victims even calling for some cardinals to recuse themselves from the selection process. Victims’ groups still want the Vatican to disclose more about its role in failing to protect children. One such organization, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it was grateful that Francis was not on its list of the worst choices for pope — but warned that very little about the crisis has been exposed in South America.
3. Getting along with other faiths. Benedict caused a furor when, in 2006, he quoted an emperor who had characterized some teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman." Benedict is credited with repairing rifts with Jews, however, and the new pope has also been praised for cultivating a strong relationship with Judaism. After Francis' election, the head of the World Jewish Congress praised him as someone "known for his open-mindedness."
4. Winning the West. Benedict couldn’t stop the decline of the church in its traditional stronghold of Europe. Meanwhile in the United States, a Pew study released Wednesday found that only 27 percent of the church’s members defined themselves as "strong" Catholics — a four-decade low. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who was considered a papal contender, expressed hope that Francis would fight rising secularism: "We pledge our faithful support for the Holy Father as he leads the Church in proclaiming the New Evangelization, inviting all people to a develop a closer relationship with Christ and to share that gift with others."
5. Should women be priests? And should priests marry? Francis will have to address growing debate within the church about the celibacy requirement for priests. A priest in Australia admitted last year that he had been married for a year and said "there are more like me." Benedict also delivered a veiled rebuke to an Austrian priests' group that wants the church to allow women to be ordained and to get rid of the celibacy requirement.
Tony Gomez / Reuters file
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to lead the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
6. Modernization. Majorities of Catholics in the United States have said in surveys that they want the pope to lead the church in a more liberal direction. A New York Times/CBS News poll of Catholics last week found that six in 10 support gay marriage, and seven in 10 want the church to allow birth control. Three-quarters supported abortion in at least some circumstances. In Argentina, then-Cardinal Bergoglio clashed with the president over a 2010 law allowing gay marriage. "It is a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God," he said.
7. Persecution. Open Doors, a group that documents Christian persecution, reported earlier this year that 100 million Christians are oppressed around the worldwide, with countries in Asia and the Middle East by far the worst offenders. Benedict claimed that Christians are the most oppressed religious group in the world, facing discrimination and often violence. As pope, Francis must also be the church’s most prominent diplomat. "This situation is intolerable," Benedict said in 2010, "since it represents an insult to God and to human dignity."
Dmitry Lovetsky / Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church following then-Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. On the second day of the conclave, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, taking on the name Pope Francis.
This story was originally published on Thu Mar 14, 2013 4:06 AM EDT