Throughout the Americas, home to nearly 50 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, expectations are running high with the election of the first non-European pope in more than 1,300 years.
Priests, activists and millions of faithful practitioners are looking for Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, to turn around a church that has been hard hit by child abuse scandals and alienated some adherents through stances that bar women from priesthood, deny priests from getting married, designate abortion as murder, discriminate against gays and ban the use of contraceptives even in AIDS ravaged regions like the Horn of Africa.
"Even if Bergoglio was careful enough not to appear like he was straying from the positions of his predecessors, he always chose to keep his options open," Sergio Rubin, an Argentinian journalist who is the co-author of the book "The Jesuit, Conversations with Jorge Mario Bergoglio" wrote in an article for Argentinian newspaper Clarín. "It is hard not to see in that a prelude for changes in the Church, at least in the way to approach the problems and the demands for modernization."
For many analysts, hopes of reform are in part justified by Bergoglio's character, which in many ways is pointedly different from that of his predecessors.
An austere and frugal man known for his rejection of pomp and luxury, Bergoglio is a Jesuit by training whose stance on poverty is perhaps more similar to that of a Franciscan. In Argentina, he rejected the archdiocese's official cars and opted to ride the subway or the public bus to work. As pope, he paid for his own hotel bill and asked his countrymen not to spend their money on tickets to attend his inauguration in Rome, but rather to use the funds to help the poor.
"I think there will be a change in style," said Paul G. Crowley, a theology professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in the Jesuit Community, in an interview with ABC/Univision. "I think we will see a simpler papacy and more popular gestures of simplicity. There will be a change in that level and that will be significant."
Thus far, the change of style seems to be refreshing for many Catholics who felt alienated by the previous pope's lack of charisma and by the Church's traditional pageantry.
"I love Pope Francis because he has a unique kind of simplicity," Gloria Arbeláez, a regular churchgoer, said last Sunday after an 11 a.m. mass in Bogota, Colombia. "You can see he is truly humble. At least he doesn't want people to kiss his ring. He looks like a regular guy, not like Pope Benedict."
This excitement, however, is not always shared by Catholics who expect deep reforms on the church's stance towards contraception, same-sex marriage or abortion. But according to Crowley and other observers, those kinds of changes should not be expected. The son of an Italian railway worker, Bergoglio is first and foremost a social conservative who follows the Church's traditional doctrine.
"As far as I know, Pope Francis is a moderate conservative who will maintain the Church's current moral positions," says Father Francisco de Roux, the highest Jesuit authority in Colombia and one of the country's most prominent clerics.
"I think he is a man who is open to learning, but thus far he has been a very cautious and conservative priest that has followed the traditional Catholic teachings," added de Roux, who has worked for peace and development in some of Colombia's most war-ravaged zones for the past three decades.
Crowley agrees with de Roux's take, and adds that we shouldn't expect any reforms on social issues like abortion, gay marriage or even birth control, although the pope has had an ambiguous stance towards this last issue.
Regarding gay marriage, then-Cardinal Bergoglio staunchly opposed legislation proposed in Argentina in 2010. As part of a media campaign that saw him face off against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Bergoglio sent a letter to the nation's Carmelite nuns, urging them to condemn the same-sex marriage bill that the Argentine government had put forward. The approval of gay marriage, Bergoglio told the nuns, could "seriously harm the family."
"At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts," he wrote.
"Let us not be naïve," he continued, "this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God's plan. It is not just a bill [or mere instrument] but a 'move' of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."
Bergoglio could have an impact on other slightly less controversial subjects, according to Crowley, especially on those that have been historically championed by the conservative factions of the curia.
"I don't expect big changes of any practices or teachings," Crowley said. "But I would hope that he could open up avenues of listening to people, especially for women. I think he could open discussion of women deacons. I think that's something he could do precisely because he is conservative. And for the same reason, he might open up a discussion about priestly celibacy."
More importantly for Catholics around the world, Bergoglio could be the man the Church needs to truly tackle the seemingly endless child-abuse scandal. Bergoglio, whose appointment as pope was welcomed by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, has been a critic of those priests who have been proved guilty of abuse, and he has refused to make ex
cuses for those who have been accused.
"I expect that he would be very firm in the handling of it," Crowley said. "That could be the place where he could be really resolute and where he could really make a mark."
Thus far, however, most talk amounts to mere speculation, and the new pope hasn't given many clues about what issues, if any, he will try to take on in the coming years.
He did offer a small insight into why he took the name Francis and how that is related to his vision for the Church. During a meeting with his first meeting with the press las Saturday, Bergoglio said that he chose the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who was, "the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation."
"Oh how I would like a poor church and a church for the poor," Pope Francis said.