A humble man who took the bus, cooked his own meals and eschewed church mansions for a simple room in Buenos Aires has ascended the Catholic hierarchy to become Pope Francis. 

It is a hopeful turn for Catholicism in that someone more connected to the people than to church trappings might better understand the challenges of the day, not only for the church itself but also for the communities and nations whose welfare and politics it influences.

For Americans divided about a woman’s right to choose an abortion, increasingly supportive of gay marriage and overwhelmingly in favor of birth control, Pope Francis will bring no immediate philosophical shift. Nor would anyone expect the cardinals to choose a pope holding what to them would be radical views.

But on the other matter that has embroiled the Catholic church here — child sexual abuse by priests — we see reason to hope that Pope Francis might perceive where the church went wrong, not just while abuse was rampant and concealed but in the more recent aftermath, when the leadership in Rome often seemed to be on another planet from the people and parishes so deeply wronged.

As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, this pope visited the slums of Argentina and preached inclusiveness to the priests under his watch. An ecclesiastical conservative, he nevertheless saw pastoral duties as most important. He berated priests who refused to baptize the child of a single mother, for example, and felt comfortable calling out hypocrisy.

Like popes before him, he has a history of controversy. His conduct during the years of brutal dictatorship in Argentina has been questioned. His once obscure personal history soon will be on world view. And in these early days, some of the descriptions seem to contradict.

How does his humble nature, mentioned at every turn, and his preference for quiet, behind-the-scenes work reconcile with his prominence in the church? No obscure choice, he was a finalist in the last papal conclave.

The world will follow this unfolding story because the selection of a pope is not just of consequence to Catholics. Churches, whether fundamentalist or Roman Catholic, work hard to influence public policy and laws — not just in Pope Francis’ Latin America, where 40 percent of Roman Catholics reside, but in the United States, where Catholic leaders just last year forced changes in medical coverage for contraception under health care reform.

There have been times in recent years, particularly as the abuse scandal evolved, when the church as an institution seemed more concerned with protecting its own than in listening to the people or reaching out to those who were wronged.

We hope that Pope Francis will shift that tone to one of understanding and caring, here and in the rest of the world. And that he will be an instrument of peace.

Editorial by the San Jose Mercury News

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