Selection Of Argentine Pope Surprises Some Vatican Observers

Melissa Block talks to Philip Reeves about reaction to the selection of a new pope to lead the Catholic Church, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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CARDINAL JEAN-LOUIS PIERRE TAURAN: (Through translator) I announce to you a great joy: We have a pope.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BLOCK: Joy at the Vatican today as the Roman Catholic Church announced its new leader. It is Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina. He has chosen the name Pope Francis. He is the first pope from the Americas and the first from the Jesuit order, and his election follows the retirement of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, something that hasn't happened in hundreds of years. Pope Francis began his address to the faithful in St. Peter's Square with a nod to the previous pope.

POPE FRANCIS: (Through translator) First of all, I'd like to offer a prayer for our eminent bishop, Benedict XVI. Let us all pray together for him. May the Lord bless him.

BLOCK: We begin our coverage this hour with NPR's Philip Reeves, who has been out among the throngs of people at the Vatican. And, Philip, I can only imagine how electric that moment must be.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Oh, yes, indeed. But, you know, despite all the cheers and the flag-waving and the euphoria and excitement generated by the moment, you know, the bells of St. Peter's ringing, the assembled multitude and finally the, you know, the arrival of the new pope himself, actually quite a few people in the crowd didn't know who he was...

BLOCK: Ah.

REEVES: ...and the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio was a complete surprise to them.

BLOCK: A surprise to a number of people who've been following this very closely, too, and had lists of the most likely contenders. He was not at the top of the list. He spoke of himself as one who is from far away. And I imagine a lot of people in that crowd today were also from far away. What did they tell you?

REEVES: Yes, there were pilgrims here from all over the place. There were lots of Romans. I mean, the Italians came swarming in once they had seen that great gust of white smoke over the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And although they were somewhat surprised, as I said, by the selection of Cardinal Bergoglio - now, of course, Pope Francis - it wasn't long before a lot of them were chanting his name. They were impressed by what they saw of him, I think, particularly when he asked them to pray for him. They were very moved by that, the ones I spoke to were at any rate.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. Do you get the sense from the people you've talked to that they want a reformer as pope? Do they think that Pope Francis would be a reformer in the church?

REEVES: I think that the Vatican, as we all know, has been buffeted and badly damaged by one scandal after another, and a lot of people feel that it needs to establish a new relationship with the people, with the one point billion Catholics of the world.

And the people I was talking to in the crowd, saying that they were looking for signs of humility, they were - drew particular optimism on that front from the name, Pope Francis, after Francis of Assisi. He's a - Francis of Assisi is a very popular saint in Italy and is seen as symbolizing poverty and a champion of the poor and so on. So I think people here have read a lot of significance into that, which I believe they were intended to do.

BLOCK: Yeah. And we've been talking about this through the program today, though, that when he was the cardinal of Buenos Aires, the current Pope Francis rejected a lot of the trappings of office. He didn't use a limousine. He took public transportation. He lived in a simple apartment, not the elegant quarters.

REEVES: Yes. Details are still emerging. I mean, the world is still finding out who he is. We're hearing about how he rode the Metro and took buses and traveled economy class by air. And, of course, that's going to all change now.

But, you know, my initial impression is that people here, you know, particularly the Curia, the Vatican administration, has been highly criticized. The Vatileaks scandal exposed maladministration, corruption, infighting there.

And I think the fact that he does present himself as someone who represents the poor and is an outsider and is from Latin America - remember, this is a tilt away from Europe to Latin America. Europe is the traditional heartland of the papacy.

And I think all of that is going to be seen here - and is being seen here - as very significant. But remember, people don't quite know what's going to happen next. So I think beneath the euphoria that's all around us at the moment, there will be some apprehension about where this is going.

BLOCK: OK. Phil, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Phil Reeves, who has spent the day in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

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