The Catholic Cardinals bypassed Europe and reached all the way across and down to South America for a new pope. The near 120-strong assembly of Cardinals convened in Rome chose a Jesuit from Argentina in the southern hemisphere—76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
He chose the name of Francis for his pontifical reign after the famous Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), founder of the Franciscan order of priests and famous for self-imposed poverty, simplicity of life and care for the poor. (The Jesuits, while typically known for intellectualism, like the Franciscans take a vow of poverty in following the founder of their order Ignatius of Loyola. Yet Francis is more well-known in this regard.)
Given that whoever occupies the papal seat wields great influence on the world stage—the Catholic Church having a billion members and many countries having Catholics as large, even majority, percentages of their populations—it's important in our watching of world events that we give attention to this matter.
What is the new pope's focus going forward? And what, ultimately, is the future of the papal institution and the Roman church?
A far-seeing church
Despite being beset by alleged corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency and tarnishing scandals, the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church including the pope, usually remains well ahead of secular nations in reading trends and seeing opportunities that others may miss. Francis' emphasis on helping the poor focuses on a growing global problem—the widening gap between rich and poor.
The new pope's reign will very likely see this age-old gap worsen, especially if a serious recession reemerges in several key countries. By emphasizing this global issue, the Catholic Church may well attract much greater numbers and exert an even more profound influence among the nations.
While declining in truly committed members and overall influence in secular Europe, Catholic growth has mushroomed in Latin America, Africa and even parts of Asia. A revolutionary shift in the church has occurred in the last 50 years or so. And Catholic leaders, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have not been slow to recognize its profound implications for the future. Latin America and Africa suffer no paucity of sheer numbers and poor people.
John Paul II in particular possessed a sweeping global vision, extending far beyond the continent of Europe. He greatly expanded Catholic numbers and influence in the developing world—mostly in Latin America, but to a large extent in Africa and Asia as well. Non-Italian appointments to key church positions increased considerably. He was a forward-looking pontiff in understanding that the numbers and doctrinal conservatism he favored had to come not from an increasingly secular and doctrinally liberal Europe or even the United States, but primarily from third world countries.
Indications are that Francis reflects the global trend of focusing on the rich-poor gap even in his private life.
The new pope's personal qualities and beliefs
Francis' early behavior as pope strongly indicates that he intends to show Rome what Vatican spokesmen and commentators have called "a new way [or style] of doing things." During his first day in office he traveled in a standard black sedan rather than the expected Mercedes. As much as possible, the new pontiff dressed simply and even performed mundane tasks himself such as personally collecting his luggage and paying a hotel bill.
So far it looks very much like he wishes to bring a simpler lifestyle to the papal court. While archbishop of Buenos Aires, he traveled by bus and lived in a one-bedroom apartment, preparing his own meals.
Margaret Hebblethwaite—formerly of the British Catholic magazine The Tablet, but now a missionary teacher in Paraguay—visited Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina. She wrote, "He came over as a man who was not only passionately committed to the gospel of poverty, but also highly intelligent and cultured" ("The Pope Francis I Know," The Guardian, March 14, 2013).
Doctrinally the new bishop of Rome reflects Catholic tradition. Differing sharply with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Francis' views on gay marriage remain staunchly traditional.
He correctly labeled this relatively new trend as a device of the devil who "deceitfully intends to destroy the image of God: man and woman, who received the mandate to grow, multiply, and conquer the Earth. Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God" (quoted by Andrew Brown, "Pope Francis Will Not Yield on Doctrine, but His Emphasis Will Be on the Poor," The Guardian, March 14). He is also against abortion and ordaining women as priests.
Opinions about Pope Francis have been divided. As Hebblethwaite explained: "One sees him as humble, the other as authoritarian. One as progressive and open, the other as conservative and severe." Critics have charged him with a lack of courage during the dark days of an Argentine dictatorship, but defenders state that he opposed a brutal military junta.
Of course, only God, "the Judge of all" (Hebrews 12:23 Hebrews 12:23To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
American King James Version×), can see us clearly on the inside and judge our true intentions.
The papal view of poverty
Augusto Zampini, an Argentine priest now studying in London, stated: "He [the pontiff] works every day in trying to see the world through the eyes of the poor. He told us as young priests, you have to work hard as priests to get the view the poor have of the world. And if that's the case, we will be a different church in the 21st century" (quoted by Brown).
Wall Street Journal writersreported from Vatican City that "the Catholic Church's first New World pontiff began his ministry Tuesday [March 19] with a call for politicians, priests and others in positions in power to protect society's weakest and poorest members" ("Pope Francis Celebrates Inaugural Mass," March 19). Clearly poverty is the new pontiff's battlefront of choice.
As for the business world, Bloomberg editors hope that Francis "will act in the best tradition of Catholic economic thought . . . The Church's social teaching has focused intently on ways to impose moral order on economic activity and mitigate the effects of unrestrained commerce on the poor."
They point out that John Paul II "argued that a just society 'is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled . . . to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied'" ("Bloomberg View: Pope Francis and the Poor," Bloomberg Businessweek, March 14, emphasis added throughout).
But such a guarantee of everyone's needs being met can only come about with the second coming of Jesus Christ bringing a Millennium of peace and unparalleled prosperity to this planet through great miracles, including transforming human hearts on a global scale. During this age of man, in contrast, the Old Testament tells us that "the poor will never cease from the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11 Deuteronomy 15:11For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command you, saying, You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.
American King James Version×). Jesus Christ reiterated the point: "The poor you have with you always" (John 12:8 John 12:8For the poor always you have with you; but me you have not always.
American King James Version×).
We clearly have a Christian obligation to help the poor. But human effort will never bring utopia to the earth. Only the coming rule of the Kingdom of God on earth can do that. Attempts to control the marketplace invariably fail. Central planners cannot omnisciently provide for everyone's needs and wants. And human regulatory efforts are often more destructive than helpful, ultimately enabling tyrannical government.
The Bloomberg editorial also shows that our fast-changing technology guarantees serious practical problems for future workers and attempts to oversee all the ramifications: "The coming revolution in robotics and automation could cause immense disruption for the world's workers. Imposing an ethical framework on this new world will require the kind of supple thinking that hasn't always come naturally to the Vatican."
The new pope's perceived task may prove gargantuan, an uphill struggle virtually impossible to fully ascend.
Other arduous challenges ahead
What will happen to the Roman Catholic Church when all the dust settles on the present euphoria? John Cornwell, author of various books on the papacy, wrote in The New Statesman: "Under the ultra-conservative Benedict XVI, the Vatican was racked by intrigue, confusion and decay. Can a new pope lead the Catholic Church in a new direction?" (March 18-24).
After Pope John Paul II died, Cornwell was quoted in the Financial Times as stating, "His successor will inherit a dysfunctional Church fraught with problems" ("The Next Pope Faces the Challenge of Holding Catholic Church Together," April 2, 2005). The same could be said about Francis. In that sense, not a lot has altered in the nearly eight years since this was said. Perhaps Benedict XVI resigned simply because he couldn't cope with all these awesome challenges at the advanced age of 85, though it's possible there are other factors that have not been made known.
No church of people can be immune from the influence of the general direction in which the world is traveling. We have shown our readers again and again in The Good News the pervasive decline in this world's morality and where many troubling trends are taking us.
Also, no organization can be immune from what Almighty God is doing in working out His prophetic plan and purpose for humankind. God says: "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure" (Isaiah 46:10 Isaiah 46:10Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:
American King James Version×). Biblical prophecy will ultimately triumph over all of man's intentions, honorable or otherwise. Remember that our Creator has the whole world's best interests at heart.
So what is going to happen?
As the Bible tells us, basic fulfillment of key biblical prophecies will center in Europe and the Middle East—and will indeed involve the world's biggest church and its leader.
Events not generally expected
A pivotal biblical prophecy deals with a final revival of the ancient Holy Roman Empire as foretold in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Scripture prophesies that a group of 10 kings or national leaders will give rise to an awesome geopolitical union centered in Europe. The Hebrew prophet Daniel foretold this future hundreds of years before the time of Christ. His inspired prophecies were later complemented in the book of Revelation, revealed by Christ to the elderly apostle John near the end of the first century.
Unlike today's increasingly secular, multicultural Europe, this new world superpower will be strongly undergirded by a pervasive religious element—being influenced by a great false Christian religious system (see "Comprehending Counterfeit Christianity").
The Bible names this false system "Babylon the Great" (Revelation 17:5 Revelation 17:5And on her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
American King James Version×). It is portrayed as sitting on seven mountains and ruling over the kings of the earth. The seven mountains are a clear reference to the famed City of Seven Hills—Rome. They also represent seven successive kingdoms through history—revivals of the Holy Roman Empire, the last of which lies still ahead (Revelation 17:9-10 Revelation 17:9-10  And here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sits.  And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he comes, he must continue a short space.
American King James Version×).
Astounding satanic miracles will be performed by a leading charismatic figure in this false religious system the Bible calls "the false prophet," who will even possess power to cause fire to come down from heaven (Revelation 13:3 Revelation 13:3And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.
American King James Version×).
This man will join hands with a possibly even more charismatic individual the book of Revelation calls "the beast," who will head a world-changing dictatorship—the coming revival of the Holy Roman Empire, which is also referred to in Revelation as the Beast. The world as a whole will fall under the spell of these leaders, and deceived people will even worship the Beast power (Revelation 13:8 Revelation 13:8And all that dwell on the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
American King James Version×)—an unholy union of church and state.
Those who mastermind this worldwide deception will openly blaspheme the true God of heaven (Revelation 13:6 Revelation 13:6And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.
American King James Version×). The authentic saints of God will be severely persecuted by a church gone wrong (Revelation 13:7 Revelation 13:7And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
American King James Version×). In the long run, crucial events concerning the Roman Catholic Church will find their prophetic fulfillment.
On the surface these developments may initially appear as a positive force for good in a chaotic world. But in reality the final product will result in a great deal of evil for mankind. All who have the courage to resist and oppose this confusing Babylonian system, including true Christians, will be ruthlessly persecuted and oppressed—even to the point of martyrdom.
We are living in momentous times, but even more momentous times are still ahead. Only the second coming of Jesus Christ will rescue humankind and save this world from human extinction (see Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22  For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×; Revelation 11:15 Revelation 11:15And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
American King James Version×).
As to whether the new pope will have any involvement with these final events preceding Christ's return, there is no way to know at this time. His current lifestyle would seem out of character with his participation. He could be gone from the scene before these things begin to happen—or he could have a role to play that we are not able to envision at this time. In any case, we need to stay watchful, keeping our eyes open to what's happening (see Luke 21:34-36 Luke 21:34-36  And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares.
 For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth.
 Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
American King James Version×).
[ Read the corresponding article: Comprehending Counterfeit Christianity ]