The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pope has been rightly hailed as a breakthrough. As the first non-European pontiff for a millennium and the first Latin American head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis represents a progressive step forward, bringing hope of change to one of the world's oldest institutions and possibly closer ties across the globe.
The choice of a non-European pontiff is welcome. After all, two-fifths of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, where the new pope comes from. Pope Francis arguably enjoys the best of both worlds. A bishop of Buenos Aires from 1992, he readily enjoys the support of fellow Argentinians and Latin Americans. His Italian roots are expected to help bridge any gap with Rome. He is said to have been narrowly defeated by Pope Benedict in 2005 amid calls for a non-European leader. If the choice of a conservative German cardinal suggested the Holy See was not ready for reforms, the relatively quick decision by the papal conclave to pick someone from another continent can be seen as a sign of readiness to change.
How far the new leader is prepared to go remains to be seen. Widely regarded as a doctrinal conservative, Pope Francis is likely to disappoint those who expect an imminent change of stance in controversial issues like homosexuality and abortion. Yet hopes are high that he will continue to fight social injustice. The 76-year-old may not have a long tenure like John Paul II. But his image as a humble pastor, riding public transport and cooking his own meals, goes down well with the public. He is reportedly named after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his care for the poor, as well as for Francis Xavier, who was one of the Church's early missionaries to East Asia.
The world will be closely watching how the new pope handles sex scandals and other controversial issues of public concern. Pressure for more reforms will continue. Whether Sino-Vatican relations can turn a new chapter is also of concern in this part of the world. Testing times have just begun.